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Rebels baseball:

Take 5: UNLV baseball aiming to surpass expectations as 2016 season begins

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Steve Marcus

UNLV baseball players practice at Earl E. Wilson Baseball Stadium Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.

It’s been an offseason of change, both good and bad, for the UNLV baseball program, and as they prepare to start the 2016 season the Rebels are hoping their coaching shakeup can spark a breakthrough year.

UNLV manager Stan Stolte led the team most of last season because of a back injury to Tim Chambers, and then Stolte took over for good after the university in December announced Chambers’ resignation following an October arrest for one count of driving under the influence among other traffic charges. While the transition could be difficult, Stolte helped recruit the Rebels’ roster and he has their attention.

“The kids have bought in and they’re doing everything that we ask of them,” Stolte said.

The season starts tonight with a big three-game series at No. 23 Texas, which is expecting a sell-out at nearly 7,000-seat UFCU Disch-Falk Field. The Rebels’ early nonconference slate also includes home series against Ohio State and West Virginia.

UNLV was picked to finish fifth in the seven-team Mountain West. To finish higher, these are going to be some of the keys to the season:

1. Eyes on Oakley

The Friday night game is often considered the premier pitching matchup in college baseball, but Stolte sees it a little differently.

“I think Saturday is probably the most important game of the weekend,” Stolte said.

It’s the swing game, a chance to either win the series or fight out of an 0-1 hole, and senior Kenny Oakley has been tasked with handling those duties for UNLV. A Coronado High grad, Oakley earned second-team All-Mountain West honors last year after posting a 3.18 ERA over 12 starts with 60 strikeouts and 22 walks. Oakley has been a consistent presence for UNLV with a 3.13 ERA over 218 1/3 career innings.

“A lot of times you don’t get a senior that good back,” Stolte said. “… He’s matured, he’s a leader and you know what you’re going to get out of him.”

Senior D.J. Myers, a fellow Coronado High grad, gets the initial nod as UNLV’s Friday starter and senior Ben Wright is tabbed to throw on Sundays. The Rebels really like their rotation, though, and other guys like sophomores Blaze Bohall and Dean Kremer and senior Cody Roper will compete for those spots throughout the year.

“We’ve still got to figure out some roles in the bullpen but our starting situation is in a good place,” Stolte said.

2. Boosting the Offense

The bad news for the Rebels’ offense is that they must replace five of the top six hitters from last season. The possible silver lining is that that group ranked second-to-last in the Mountain West in both batting average and runs scored, so perhaps some change is good.

But along with change the Rebels are counting on development from some returners, specifically an anticipated leap from sophomore Payton Squier. The Phoenix native led UNLV in runs (36), hits (64) and at-bats (223) last season, and the Rebels want even more from their No. 3 hitter.

“We’re counting on him. We need his offense,” Stolte said.

Squier hit .287 last season with 23 strikeouts to 16 walks, plus a team-leading 11 stolen bases. Overall it was a strong start to a career, and now UNLV is counting on Squier to build on it and lead this offense.

“He’s shown signs of it but he hasn’t consistently done it,” Stolte said.

3. Jones’ Return Key

Junior Justin Jones played in only 17 games last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the season. Now he’s back with an extra year of eligibility after the NCAA granted him a medical redshirt, and the team captain’s presence in the lineup is something Stolte is really counting on. Jones, a Bishop Gorman High grad, will be tasked with getting UNLV off to a good start while defensively anchoring the middle of the field.

“(He’s) kind of the heart and soul of our team for position players,” Stolte said. “He’s going to lead off for us and he’s as good of a defensive second baseman as anyone.”

As a freshman, Jones hit .287 with a .362 slugging percentage while driving in 39 runs. Now that he’s healthy, the Rebels are hoping Jones can return to production similar to that and shake off the .222 batting average he posted in last year’s injury-shortened season.

4. Familiar Freshmen Names

They might not make a huge impact on this year’s team, but a couple of freshmen on this year’s team will garner attention just because of the name on the back of their jersey.

It is obviously unfair to compare Bishop Gorman High grad Chase Maddux to his Hall of Fame father, Greg Maddux, but it doesn’t hurt that Chase has openly embraced his father’s guidance all along the way.

“He taught me everything I know,” Chase Maddux said at his signing day last spring. “Everything I do (while pitching) is because he told me to do it.”

Another freshman pitcher, 6-foot-3 right-hander Paul Richy, has a recent Rebel’s legacy to try to meet or surpass. Richy’s older brother, John Richy, was a great diamond in the rough recruiting find for the Rebels, who were one of the programs to show interest in the Golden, Colo., native. Three years later, the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the third round and John Richy is currently in the Philadelphia Phillies’ system.

5. New Facility

Former manager Tim Chambers’ legacy at UNLV is a complicated one, but one of the clear positives is the new clubhouse that he was integral in making happen.

The team has moved in to its new, $2.75 million home, the Anthony and Lyndy Marnell III Baseball Clubhouse, and a public unveiling is still to come. Chambers’ relationship with former Gorman player Anthony Marnell III was key to getting the facility built.

Chambers’ tenure obviously didn’t end the way he wanted, but the new facility is at least something the program can build on, specifically in recruiting.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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