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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Baseball

‘Everyone has something to prove this year’: UH baseball eyes Omaha


UH baseball freshman infielder Luke Almendarez celebrates the Red team's victory in the annual UH baseball Red-White series in November of 2020. | Courtesy of UH athletics

UH baseball freshman infielder Luke Almendarez celebrates the Red team’s victory in the annual UH baseball Red-White series in November 2020. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Every day, junior first baseman Ryan Hernandez looks out at Schroeder Park’s outfield walls and sees the numbers: four, two, 15 and 21.

They represent important milestones in Houston baseball history: four NCAA Super Regionals, two College World Series appearances, 15 conference titles and 21 NCAA Regionals played in.

After looking at these numbers each day, Hernandez often tells his coach Todd Whitting that they are going to have to update the outfield walls after the 2021 season.

He believes this year’s team is capable of greatness.

“I think we’re going to go to Omaha this year,” Hernandez said. “We have the pitching tools. We have a lineup that you can’t pitch around. And we just have overall competitors, which is what we need in the game of baseball.”

Hernandez knows a lot about winning and what makes a great team, as he played for a San Jacinto JUCO team in 2019 that won 42 games and captured the Region XIV Championship.

Hernandez said this Cougars team reminds him a lot of his San Jacinto team and Whitting agreed, calling this year’s UH team the deepest team he has had in his 11 seasons as the Cougars’ skipper.

Along with the return of some key starters from last season, UH also brought in a talented group of freshmen and the fifth-ranked JUCO class in the nation to bolster the roster.

“We’ve never had a team with this much depth,” Whitting said. “A lot of that is due to the fact that the MLB Draft was only five rounds last year. We probably have five to seven players on this team that usually would not be here right now.”

Sophomore closer and designated hitter Derrick Cherry echoed both Hernandez and Whitting’s statements about the depth on this Cougars squad. He particularly focused on the pitchers that each bring something unique to the table.

“We have multiple guys that have high velocity that throw really hard. We have guys that throw strikes. We have lefty’s that mix it up in and out,” Cherry said. “This year, pitching staff wise, I think is the best I’ve seen yet since being here.”

All the talk about the talent on this UH baseball team, which features an American Athletic Conference-leading 13 MLB Draft prospects over the next two drafts, was evident in the program’s annual Red-White series in November 2020.

After three highly competitive games, including a series finale that went back-and-forth all night and ended with a walk-off single by sophomore infielder Brad Burckel, Whitting called it the best Red-White series he has been a part of during his coaching career.

A major factor to why UH’s Fall 2020 practices and scrimmages were competitive each and every day was because every player in the program understands how deep this roster truly is, a starting spot will not just be handed to them.

“Every day everybody is coming out here fighting for a job,” Cherry said. “We have so much depth at every single position here. Every day it’s a fight. There’s no free pass that you just get a free (starting) spot.”

Coming off a disappointing 2020 season that was canceled just 15 games in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cougars are as motivated and hungry as ever to make a major statement and do something that no UH baseball team has done since 1967: earn a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, to compete in the College World Series.

“Everyone has something to prove this year,” Hernandez said. “Everyone is taking it personally and we’re all fueling each other. It’s something that’s super special because it’s something that can just explode at any moment.”

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