2022 Mountain West Conference Preview
After years of dominance from San Diego State, the Mountain West has been much more open the last few years, with Fresno State and Nevada winning the last two titles. Will Nevada be able to repeat in 2022 or will there be another new champion in the conference?
The conference has a bonafide star in Air Force catcher/righthander Paul Skenes, who last year earned All-America honors as a freshman. Watching what he does for an encore will be one of the best storylines of the season.
The Mountain West last year did away with its conference tournament and limited its schedule as a result of the pandemic and some belt-tightening for schools and the conference. But the schedule is back to normal in 2022 and the conference’s NCAA Tournament bid will this season be awarded to the Mountain West Tournament champion.
Can Nevada repeat as champion?
Nevada last season won the regular-season Mountain West title, its second in three seasons, and—with the conference tournament canceled due to the pandemic—advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
The Wolfpack enters 2022 as the Mountain West favorite and is aiming to reach regionals in back-to-back seasons for just the second time in program history (1999-2000). It must replace leading hitter Dillan Shrum, who won the conference batting title, relief ace Shane Gustafson and starter Jake Jackson, but has plenty of star power back.
Fifth-year seniors Tyler Bosetti (.328/.387/.641, 11 HR) and Joshua Zamora (.290/.399/.580, 12 HR) return to the infield and bring power to the lineup. Bosetti rose to prominence in 2021 as he set an NCAA record by homering in nine straight games and his 22 doubles ranked 10th nationally. Also back are outfielders Dario Gomez (.393/.415/.592, 12 SB) and Jacob Stinson (.312/.431/.408), whose on-base skills play well.
On the mound, Nevada has a few more questions to answer. Righthander Cam Walty (5-3, 4.02) is back to lead the rotation and closer Tyler Cochrane (1-3, 4.06, 7 SV) returns as well. But the loss of Gustafson to pro ball and Jackson as a graduate transfer to Baylor leaves Nevada looking for a few more reliable options on the mound. The Wolfpack brought in several pitchers in its recruiting class, including some junior college transfers, and there should be room for some of the newcomers to make an impact.
If Nevada can find the right combination on the mound, it’s well equipped to again claim the conference title.
Can San Diego State get back to regionals?
The Aztecs reached regionals five times in six years from 2013-18, winning the Mountain West Tournament every time. But San Diego State has missed in each of the last two seasons, as Fresno State captured the title in 2019 and Nevada a year ago.
San Diego State finished second in the standings in each of the last two seasons, but without the automatic bid from the conference tournament, it wasn’t enough to secure a trip to regionals. The Aztecs will again be a force in the Mountain West race, but winning the title will probably come down to whether they are able to take a step forward on the mound after posting a 6.28 team ERA in 2021.
Powerful righthander Troy Melton (4-5, 6.14) is back to lead the rotation. His fastball gets up to 97 mph, but he’ll need to improve on his 1.60 WHIP. Righthander Kelena Sauer (1-0, 4.20) primarily pitched in relief in 2021, but will this spring move to the rotation. Freshman righthander Omar Serrano and righthander Robert Brodell, a junior college transfer, are two newcomers that can make an immediate impact for the Aztecs.
Offensively, San Diego State again looks solid despite losing its top four hitters in the draft. Second baseman Caden Miller (.345/.464/.426, 8 SB) returns after a strong first full season and DH Brian Leonhardt (.305/.374/.404) brings another experienced bat to the middle of the lineup.
Can UNLV build on its momentum?
Nevada-Las Vegas last season went 15-12 in the Mountain West and finished third in the standings behind Nevada and San Diego State. It was the Rebels’ best finish and first winning record in conference play since winning the league in 2014.
Now, can UNLV build on that finish to contend for its first regionals bid since 2014?
UNLV must replace two of its top hitters—Jack-Thomas Wold and Myles Denson—but still returns plenty. Catcher Eric Bigani (.317/.368/.545), shortstop Brendan Brooks (.407/.538/.691), outfielder Austin Kryszczuk (.361/.457/.555) and second baseman Edarian Williams (.360/.388/.552) are all back, giving the Rebels a strong core to the lineup.
UNLV’s ability to take the next step will come down to what it is able to do on the mound. The Rebels get back a few key pitchers from injury, including righthanders Troy Balko and Connor Woods, who will add depth to the staff. They also have a solid group of newcomers, led by righthander Joey Walls, a junior college transfer who could take over on Friday nights. UNLV also went into the transfer portal, adding righthanders Peyton Fuller (Oregon) and Josh Ibarra (UC Irvine), who will take on significant roles.
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What’s next for Air Force’s Paul Skenes?
Skenes was one of the best surprises in college baseball in 2021. As a true freshman, he wasted no time establishing himself as the Falcons starting catcher and closer and excelled in both positions. He hit .410/.486/.697 with 21 doubles and 11 home runs and also went 1-1, 2.70 with 11 saves in 18 appearances on the mound, striking out 30 batters and walking nine in 26.2 innings.
Skenes last season earned first-team All-America honors—the only true freshman to make the cut—and was named Mountain West freshman of the year. In the summer, he fit a stint in the Cape Cod League and with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team into a busy schedule for a cadet.
Skenes now is ready for another stellar season. He was voted a Preseason All-American by MLB scouting departments and has to be considered the favorite to win the Mountain West player of the year—an award no Air Force baseball player has ever won.
Listed at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Skenes has a big, powerful frame behind the plate and on the mound. His fastball gets up to 98 mph and he has plus raw power. Simply a repeat of his freshman year would be a special season, but Skenes has the ability to do extraordinary things on the diamond.
How will New Mexico fare under first-year coach Tod Brown?
New Mexico is the lone Mountain West program with a new coach this spring. Ray Birmingham retired following the 2021 season after 15 years at the program’s helm and Brown was hired away from North Dakota State to replace him.
Brown comes to UNM fresh off winning the Summit League and leading NDSU to the NCAA Tournament, where the Bison won a game for the first time as a Division I program.
The Lobos last season finished sixth in the Mountain West and 16-25 overall. They made four straight regionals from 2010-13 and another in 2016 but had losing records in each of the last three full seasons.
With that in mind, UNM is unlikely to instantly jump back into Mountain West title contention. The Lobos must replace leading hitters Kyler Castillo and Mack Chambers and top starter Justin Armbruester. Righthander Tristan Lively (2-2, 4.59) will lead the way on the mound and second baseman Willie Cano (.310/.363/.424) and outfielder Adam Schneider (.333/.408/.437) are two hitters to watch.
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