Above photo of Kaden deBerardinis by CJ Halloran/@cjhall_photography
BELTON, Texas- UMHB head baseball coach Mike Stawski has been around college baseball long enough.
He knows full well that once the conference tournament gets underway, as it will for him and the Crusaders Thursday, anything and everything can happen.
The Cru enters the ASC tournament for the first time since 2017, and the excitement around this program is sky-high. From the fans, the team, the university itself, there is a level of pride evident in the fact that UMHB is finally competing on the diamond for the first time in a long time.
“Embrace the whole entire thing,” Stawski said when asked what he emphasizing to his team this week. “Embrace the excitement, embrace the support, embrace the expectations. There’s people walking up and down the hall that truly expect us to go and win this bracket and get ready next week for a championship.”
The Cru enters the tournament as the No. 5 seed in the eight-team field, and is set to face No. 4 seed Concordia this Thursday at 11:00 a.m. CT. UMHB is in the blue bracket, hosted by top-seeded UT Dallas in Richardson, Texas.
If the Crusaders win Thursday, they would play Friday at 1 p.m. CT against the winner of Thursday’s matchup between UTD/LeTourneau. A win there, and the Cru would be playing for a spot in the ASC Championship tournament series. Of course, the tournament is double elimination, so one loss will not end UMHB’s tournament run either.
There is a good reason why so many in the UMHB community are optimistic about the Cru’s chances to make a run in the tournament. Stawski’s squad is clicking at the right time, and finished the regular season having won eight of its last nine games.
“I think we’re going in with a ton of momentum,” Stawski said. “We’re in a really good spot from a mental standpoint. And we get to playing a team we just faced so we have some familiarity, which I think is an advantage.”
Stawski noted that he knew the Cru would be playing Concordia to open the tournament after the first game of their two-game set against the Tornadoes this past weekend, so UMHB did not employ all of its in-game tactics.
“After we won game one it was pretty much a matter of seeding,” Stawski said. “We knew we would be the four or the five [seed], we knew we were going to Dallas. It also depended on the outcome of the UTD-Ozarks game, which got cancelled. So during our batting practice on Sunday before the continuation of game one, we found out it was cancelled, which guaranteed us going to Dallas.”
One unique aspect of the Cru’s weather-abbreviated two-game series was that starters Jeb Zolman and Andrew Acierni both pitched in game one. Zolman started the contest and threw two innings with only one hit, and Acierni relieved him, throwing three innings, giving up just two hits. Neither allowed a run as the Cru won the seven-inning contest 8-1.
“I knew rain was coming,” Stawski said. “And I wasn’t going to start any of our starters on Sunday, because it’d be one less day of rest. So my idea when we pulled into that stadium was, ‘Rain is coming, we’re only going to play one today, so I’m going to throw all my main guys in game one because there isn’t going to be a game two.'”
The rain did come as Stawski anticipated, and resulted in a delay of nearly 16 hours, as it was suspended in the sixth on Saturday and did not restart until Sunday afternoon.
“It was a nerve racking 16 hours,” Stawski said. “because I was sitting there at the house, talking to my wife, playing with my kids, trying to watch the Cubs, and I’m thinking about the pitch sequence the next day of the first hitter with bases loaded, two outs.
“Usually you’re trying to game plan for nine innings. I was game planning for about four pitches.”
Despite the oddity of the situation, and the fact that some of the Cru’s momentum was lost during the delay, UMHB found a way to win, a quality Stawski has seen time and time again this season. It will be critical for that quality to be displayed this week in Richardson if the visitors from Belton hope to keep their season alive.
While everyone within the program has a burning desire to accomplish more this season, the head coach made it clear that the Cru’s performance in Richardson this week will not define the season.
“I’ve been asked a few times, ‘Does the outcome of this weekend determine the success of the season?,’ Stawski said. “I say, ‘Absolutely not.’ The success of the season is already determined. We have a bunch of guys that are having fun, enjoying their time, making an impact on the University and on each other. They’re going to leave here with a great experience. They’re saying this is the best baseball experience they’ve ever had.
“And I’ll say the same thing if we come back, win this bracket and we’re going to go play for a championship, and you ask me, ‘Is [the season] more successful?’, [the answer is] no. From an outcome standpoint, yes, we get to put a trophy in a case. From an intrinsic standpoint, we are successful, no matter what happens this weekend.
“What we wanted to bring to this University we’ve brought; excitement, great kids who do things the right way and represent the University well and walk away going, ‘That was an unbelievable experience.'”
It has been those same kids that have driven the Cru’s 21-15 record this season, as their mentality changed during the spring, according to Stawski.
“I think the belief in the dugout and the idea when we walk on the field now, is the guys truly think that we’re going to win the game. At the beginning of the season, they were hoping we’d win, thinking ‘We’ve worked really hard, I hope we win today.’ Now they walk onto the field thinking, ‘We’ve worked really hard, I know we’re going to win today.'”