By: Joseph Fullbright
When head coach Brian Green was hired by his alma mater in July of 2014, he knew that he was going to have his work cut out for him. In his first season at the helm, the New Mexico State Aggies baseball team lost 38 of their 50 games. That seems like an eternity ago as Green has completely turned the program around and is slowly turning them into a powerhouse in the southwest. Last season, the Aggies finished 34-23 and were just a couple of games away from winning the WAC championship. The 23-win improvement from 2015 to 2016 was the second highest in the NCAA.
The job that Green and the entire coaching staff have done on the baseball field obviously shows, but it’s what goes down off the field where he has found the most success: recruiting. Recruiting has been the biggest key factor in the turnaround for the baseball program, and it’s safe to say that coach Green has hit homeruns (no pun intended) on the recruiting trail. His first recruiting class, prior to last season, ranked #37 in the entire country.
“It’s a testament to the coaches,” said Green. “[Assistant] Coach Mangrum is a tireless worker and a tremendous recruiter. I have been a recruiter my entire life. How does [the program] do it? We do our best to recruit guys with great character and families, and do the best we can to talk to their coaches.”
The coaching staff was at in again this offseason, as they brought in the nation’s 33rd best recruiting class- the first time in school history that the Aggies have had back-to-back nationally ranked recruiting classes in baseball.
“To bring in back-to-back nationally ranked recruiting classes is an incredible honor, but we are also aware that Las Cruces is truly a special town, and New Mexico State University is a tremendous institution. We believe in recruiting to our core values in order to enhance and develop the culture of our program.”
It’s safe to say the expectations are even higher for the baseball team, as their season officially got underway this past weekend. They will have to do it having lost three of their most valuable players from last season to the MLB draft. Relief pitchers Tyler Erwin (Baltimore Orioles) and Joe Galindo (San Diego Padres) played big roles in the Aggie bullpen last season. But, the biggest loss is 2016 WAC Player of the Year, Daniel Johnson, who was selected in the fifth round by the Washington Nationals. The All-American outfielder had 94 hits (4th in the NCAA), 12 homeruns, and 50 RBI’s last season.
“I don’t think we will ever be able to replace DJ’s offense; he impacted people before and after him with the homeruns and stolen bases,” added Green.
Tasked with the biggest challenge of replacing the production of the draft picks are the four Aggies’ four players who were named to the Preseason All-WAC team earlier this month: Catcher Mason Fishback, third baseman Trey Stine, outfielder Austin Botello, and pitcher Kyle Bradish.
Fishback earned First-Team All-WAC honors as a junior last season. In 42 games played, he had a .329 batting average, four homeruns, and 28 RBI’s.
Botello, who spends time as an outfielder and designated hitter, has the most power of any returning player on the team. He had a .354 batting average to go along with his eight homeruns and 50 RBI’s- all ranking second on the team.
Bradish enters his second season coming off of a historical freshman campaign. He became the fifth Aggie in school history to be named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team. He led the team with eight wins, 86.2 innings pitched, and 82 strikeouts.
Stine was named Second-Team All-WAC last year after hitting .281 with seven homeruns and 39 RBI’s. It was a busy offseason for Stine, who played for the Waynesboro Generals in the Valley Baseball League, a summer league in Virginia.
“I was able to stay in the rhythm of the game [more], unlike last summer,” said Stine, who is one of the many players praised by coach Green as the season begins.
Two new faces in Las Cruces to keep a close eye on are JUCO transfers: outfielder Marcus Still and pitcher Jonathan Groff. Still comes to NMSU from Scottsdale Community College where he was named second team All-Conference. He had a .344 average with 25 extra base hits and 33 stolen bases. He is a premiere centerfielder and was drafted in the 31st round of this year’s MLB Draft by the Blue Jays, but elected to reenter next season. Groff joins the Aggies after a stellar season at Tyler JC where he went 12-0, had a 1.06 ERA, and recorded 125 strikeouts. He was named the 2016 NJCAA Division III Pitcher of the Year, and led Tyler JC to their third straight NJCAA Division III National Championship where he was named the World Series MVP.
The Aggies will have a very challenging schedule in 2017. The 52-game schedule features eight teams that made it to last season’s NCAA Tournament, including three that advanced to Omaha and played in the College World Series. The Aggies have three games vs. Texas Tech- one in Lubbock, one in Las Cruces, and one at a neutral location in Midland. The Red Raiders won 47 games last season. Once again, the three game series vs. UNM will include the neutral matchup at Southwest University Park in El Paso. Perhaps the toughest matchup will be on March 21 when they travel to Tucson to play Arizona- who was the NCAA Division I runner-up a year ago. Among the rest of the competition are road trips at Arizona State, Utah, and BYU.
“The opportunity to get to the postseason, for us, it’s all about league and the conference tournament. For us, we schedule as hard as we can, go on the road as much as we can, and prepare for conference games,” said Green of the schedule.
The WAC Preseason Baseball Coaches Poll picked the Aggies to finish second in the conference this season behind Seattle U. Following the Redhawks and Aggies are Sacramento State, Grand Canyon, Utah Valley, CSU Bakersfield, UT-Rio Grande Valley, Northern Colorado, and Chicago State.
It is going to be an exciting season on the diamond for the New Mexico State baseball team. Make sure you head out to Presley Askew Field this year to support the Aggies.
Joseph Fullbright can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org