by Jack Rieger
The 2016 Nevada baseball team received a complete overhaul during the offseason, most notably when former manager Jay Johnson left Nevada for a more prestigious job with the University of Arizona after a 41-win season and Nevada’s only Mountain West regular season championship.
Eighteen days after Johnson jumped ship for Tucson, Nevada hired 33-year-old coach T.J. Bruce, who was an assistant coach at UCLA for the last five seasons where he helped lead the Bruins to the 2013 College World Series. Bruce served as the infield coach and recruiting coordinator for UCLA.
Bruce’s hiring parallels the coaching mold Nevada athletics has looked for in the past three years: young and aggressive. Brian Polian was just 38 when Nevada hired him in 2013, and he had no experience as a head coach at the college level. While Nevada football has been up and down during Polian’s tenure, the move was mostly praised at the time of the hire because Polian had experience working with high-profile coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Jim Harbaugh and Charlie Weis. Not to mention Polian is also the son of NFL Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian.
Similarly, the hiring of 33-year-old Bruce has been met with lots of praise from all types of prominent figures, including UCLA head coach John Savage, Reno Aces manager Phil Nevin and even Nevada football coaching legend Chris Ault. Hiring young, raw coaches certainly has its advantages. If Bruce turns out to be successful in Reno, Nevada has a young coach at its disposal for the foreseeable future. You could also argue young coaches have the ability to relate to 18-to 22-year-old kids better than an older coach could.
But there are also consequences to hiring a young coach like Bruce, some of which are already beginning to surface. Nevada lost a number of talented incoming players who were committed to playing for the Pack after the coaching change, including two MLB draftees. Nevada also lost MW Freshman of the Year Cal Stevenson, who transferred to a junior college following the coaching moves. Along with Stevenson, Nevada lost five All-MW honorees, five MLB draft picks and three All-Americans.
This year’s Wolf Pack baseball team will be a completely different offense, losing 71 percent of its runs scored and 82 percent of its home runs. Last season, Nevada ranked fourth in the NCAA in runs scored per game (8.0), but with the loss of middle-of-the-order hitters like Austin Byler and Ryan Howell, the Pack will certainly see a decrease in offensive fire power and will have to depend on its pitching staff and defense.
Although Nevada lost plenty of good players, the team still has a nice mix of talent, including preseason MW Player of the Year Trenton Brooks, who had the best batting average in the MW last season. The Pack also has the preseason MW Pitcher of the Year in Christian Stolo, who flaunted a 2.60 earned run average in 2015 and led Nevada in strikeouts with 68. Nevada will depend on the ability of its pitching this season, as the team returns much of its staff from last year, including Stolo (8-2, 2.83 ERA), Zach Wilkins (2-0, 3.26 ERA), Evan McMahan (5-0, 2.32 ERA) and Trenton Brooks (4-1, 3.65 ERA).
Led by Bruce, Nevada baseball is hoping to continue its run as a premier Mountain West program. The Wolf Pack will have to overcome the loss of talented MLB draft picks, transfers and three All-Americans, which will not be easy. Don’t expect Wolf Pack baseball to replicate last year’s 41-win season, at least not yet.
Jack Rieger can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JackRieger.