Junior infielder Edarian Williams knew something was different about this UNLV baseball team.
The aura had changed. There was an intensity in the way the Rebels worked, a commitment to improving and desire to win.
“This team is special,” Williams said. “It’s probably the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here.”
UNLV heads to San Diego as the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West tournament after winning the regular-season title. The Rebels (36-20) will play No. 4 Air Force (27-27) at 6 p.m. Thursday at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
The championship game of the double-elimination tournament is Sunday. The winner gets an automatic berth into an NCAA regional.
The regular-season championship is the fourth in program history and first since 2014. It’s also the first regular-season title for UNLV coach Stan Stolte
“To finally reach our goal, it’s a good deal,” Stolte said.
The job is far from finished, though. The Rebels have played in 20 Mountain West tournaments, but haven’t won since 2005.
They haven’t been helped by recent events.
UNLV would have qualified for the 2021 tournament after finishing third in the conference, but the Mountain West canceled the event for the second consecutive year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two transfers have strengthened the Rebels’ pitching staff. Senior right-hander Josh Ibarra, who transferred from UC Irvine, established himself as the team’s No. 1 starter, and junior Hayden Nierman arrived from Oakland University and is one of the team’s most reliable relievers.
Ibarra said he chose UNLV because he was drawn to the team’s chemistry. The Rebels returned several starters from the 2021 team, and he wanted to be part of the return to the top of the conference.
The chemistry can be traced to the number of local players on the roster. Junior Joey Walls, a transfer from College of Southern Nevada, played at Rancho High with Williams and is one of 14 players from Las Vegas.
“I grew up with most of these guys,” Walls said. “It’s awesome sharing the field with them.”
The Rebels were put to the test early. They beat Michigan State on opening day, but lost the next three games to the Spartans.
Walls said he thought it was a promising start despite the results.
“We’re more of a family than a team, so it’s real fun to come in each and every day,” he said.
UNLV quickly bounced back. The Rebels won five of their next seven games, then started the Mountain West season by sweeping San Diego State on the road.
Stolte and Williams said they think the team’s resilience propelled it to the regular-season title. The Rebels finished 21-9 in the conference, three games ahead of runner-up UNR.
“We never feel like we’re down and out,” Williams said. “We have confidence and faith in each other that someone else will come pick us up.”
The Rebels topped the MW in hitting with a .331 average, led by infielder Henry Zeisler (.399, second) and outfielder Rylan Charles (.392, third). Zeisler led the league in RBIs with 72, and Williams (66) was second.
Any hopes of making an NCAA regional for the first time since 2014 probably depends on the Rebels winning the tournament, as an at-large bid is unlikely.
“We can do big and special things,” Walls said.
Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at email@example.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.