As Nevada baseball readies for the 2020 campaign, one statement has been at the center of the offseason: establishing a culture.
It may stem from 19 newcomers looking to make an immediate impact on the field, or returning players focused on making another postseason appearance. No matter the circumstance, this year’s Wolf Pack team is hungry to grow and compete as a group.
“Culture is something that is easily said. I don’t think it’s something that’s easy to build and maintain,” head coach T.J. Bruce said. “I feel like these guys have done a tremendous job with those expectations of their work and how they grow…We have a great group that have hit the ground running.”
Following a 30-26 record and fourth-straight Mountain West Tournament appearance in 2019, Nevada will be without five combined letter winners on the field and the mound. But there is plenty of competition for each starting spot as the Pack gear up for a new year.
“I feel like this is the most competition since I’ve been here,” Bruce said. “We have 19 position players and 16 arms…There’s a lot of guys who can really play that will see significant time somewhere. The competition and depth is the highest it’s been.”
Nevada returns two All-Mountain West honorees in senior outfielder Jaylon McLaughlin and junior third baseman Josh Zamora. McLaughlin earned first-team honors after batting .339 with eight doubles and a league-leading 25 stolen bases last season. Zamora earned second-team honors, hitting .320 with eight homers and 38 RBIs.
Along with McLaughlin and Zamora, Nevada kept other pieces of its offensive core. Infielder Tyler Bosetti returns for his junior year after batting .293 with four home runs last season. Returning seniors Dillan Shrum and Wyatt Tilley had 66 combined starts last season.
The Wolf Pack also return a pair of stalwart catchers behind the plate with senior Marco Valenzuela and sophomore Matt Clayton. Valenzuela batted .215 with seven doubles and 22 runs in 44 games last season. Clayton added three homers, nine doubles and a .479 slugging percentage.
Coming off a breakout freshman campaign, Clayton is aiming to strengthen his skills at the plate.
“I just want to build off everything, getting the swing tighter and everything like that,” he said. “It’s all about getting better and better every day.”
Several new faces are looking to make an impression with the Wolf Pack. Senior outfielder Kiambu Fentress transferred to Nevada this season for his final year of eligibility. He spent the past four years with Vanderbilt University, who won the College World Series in 2019.
Fentress totaled two hits and seven runs during his time with the Commodores. Bruce and the Nevada coaching staff have high hopes for his potential.
“I think anytime you can add someone with a winning culture it speaks a testament to the university and the community,” Bruce said. “He’s been around it…You talk about a Regional (championship) he’s done it…It’s going to bring a ton to our program.”
Questions surround the Wolf Pack rotation and bullpen. Left-handed starter Ryan Anderson along with relievers Grant Ford and Bradley Bonnefant were pried away by MLB teams during the offseason.
Ford was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. It marked the highest Nevada draftee since Braden Shipley was drafted 15th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. Ford was a second-team All-Mountain West selection last season, sporting a team-best 2.76 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 28 relief appearances.
Anderson was drafted in the 12th round by the New York Yankees. He totaled a team-high 64 strikeouts with the Pack last year. Bonnefant signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Kansas City Royals.
Despite the losses for Nevada’s pitching staff, several members are focused on taking the next step of their development. Sophomore Owen Sharts and junior Jake Jackson are the top nominees for the No. 1 spot in the rotation.
Sharts ended his freshman year with a 5.96 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 14 starts. Jackson had a 7.36 ERA and 2.15 WHIP in 10 starts. Despite their early struggles on the mound, both pitchers flashed their true potential throughout the year.
“Everybody wants that job. If you don’t want that job I don’t know what you’re working for,” Sharts said. “That’s up for coach to decide. Me and Jake have done a good job competing all fall and into the spring. It’s been fun kind of piggy-backing off each other and learning. Whatever coach decides, we’re gonna be fine with it.”
Several new faces have joined the Pack to help bolster the Wolf Pack pitching lineup. Junior transfer Blane Abeyta’s mid-90s fastball can benefit the rotation or bullpen. He spent the last two seasons at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, Calif.
Abeyta earned first-team All-League and totaled 60 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. Looking for his first taste of action with Nevada, he’s eager to make the most of his opportunity.
“It’s a completely different environment from junior college,” he said. “I love learning from every single guy here. The guys on this team know how to win and that’s what I hope to be apart of.”
Entering his first season with Nevada is Troy Buckley. Buckley will serve as an associate head coach under Bruce and work with the pitchers.
In his collegiate coaching career, Buckley has coached 31 major leaguers with 99 players getting drafted—five have gone in the first round. As an assistant and head coach at Long Beach State, he made nine postseason appearances including three trips to the NCAA Super Regionals.
“I think we got the best pitching coach in the country,” Bruce said. “I’d argue that with anybody. What Troy brings is experience, but he has the ability to connect with (players) and people…I think the track record of what he’s done on the pitching side and being a head coach, it’s allowed our staff to get back to its strengths.”
Nevada is building the culture and pieces to rise in the Mountain West Conference for years to come. The Wolf Pack begin the season on the road against the University of Portland on Feb. 14.
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.