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Monday, May 25, 2020

Baseball

‘We’ve got a chip on our shoulder’: Cougars ‘hungry’ for 2020 success after tournament snub


Junior Clay Aguilar, one of Houston's preseason all-conference pitchers, said many of the Cougars' returners took 2019's NCAA Tournament snub "pretty hard," working hard in the offseason to make sure UH makes it in 2020. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

Junior Clay Aguilar, one of Houston’s preseason all-conference pitchers, said many of the Cougars’ returners took 2019’s NCAA Tournament snub “pretty hard,” working hard in the offseason to make sure UH makes it in 2020. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

Head coach Todd Whitting and the Cougars knew they were “literally one win away” from being safely in when Houston was among the first four out and narrowly left bidless in the 2019 NCAA Tournament in late May.

“But it’s not the end of the world,” a disappointed Whitting said. “I’m excited about our club coming back next year.”

For his club, which returns 20 players, including two preseason all-conference pitchers, the snub was a motivation in the offseason to improve and prevent another “unacceptable” ending to a season.

With the UH’s 2020 campaign on the horizon, set to start on Friday when Houston takes the field at Schroeder Park against Youngstown State, the Cougars are ready to channel the disappointment of a lost chance into a successful season.

Driving force

Many veteran Cougars, including junior pitcher Clay Aguilar, didn’t take the news of missing the NCAA Tournament lightly, but the snub gave Houston reason to “amp it up this offseason” and “push ourselves a lot harder.” 

“This offseason has been pretty hard, but this year we’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” Aguilar added. “We all worked a little bit harder. We put the work in.”

Houston was expected to make the NCAA Tournament for most of the year, going 32-24 in the regular season, but an 0-2 showing at the American Athletic Conference Championship derailed the Cougars’ hopes.

The biggest disappointment, Aguilar, one of the Cougars’ preseason all-conference pitchers, said, came when teams who had lower RPI rankings, like TCU, were granted a bid ahead of Houston.

“All the returners took that pretty hard,” the righty who had a 3.19 ERA in 2019 said. “We all felt like last year’s team definitely deserved to get in.”

But the disappointment turned into fuel, and that mindset, Aguilar and others said, were easily translated to incoming freshmen on the squad who didn’t experience the snub firsthand.

Getting minds right

The Cougars made it a priority in the offseason to make sure younger players knew were Houston’s priorities were.

“They helped install the hard-work mindset,” freshman infielder and pitcher Dax Dathe said of his older mentors at UH. “This year, it’s an expectation to at least make the tournament.

“We can’t leave it in anybody’s hands to make that decision for us. We have to do that ourselves.”

Senior Tyler Bielamowicz said he and other veterans made sure their younger teammates were on board for Houston’s redemption tour.

“We’ve implemented that with the new guys,” Bielamowicz, one of eight UH seniors, said. “We’re not going to let that happen again.”

Ambitious goals

While the Cougars have many personal goals, Dathe said, Houston’s “telescope” is focused on one thing — the College World Series.

The program hasn’t made it to Omaha since the late 1960s when it finished second in college baseball’s greatest show.

In recent years, Houston has gotten closer and closer to being a competitive force nationally. The Cougars have won two AAC tournament championships and three regular-season conference titles under Whitting.

Like Dathe, Bielamowicz kept his list of goals for UH’s 2020 short and simple.

“I want it to be a legacy,” Bielamowicz said. “(We want to) be the first team since 1967 to go to Omaha.”

And the Cougars know they have the talent to do so.

“We’re hungry to win some baseball games,” Aguilar said. “We’re excited to go and show our stuff. We’ve got a good squad, and we’re excited to prove people wrong.”

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