Baseball

The No. 2 Longhorns have loftier goals

The Texas Longhorns put together three consecutive convincing performances to advance from the Austin regional into the Super Regional round of the NCAA tournament. Pete Hansen’s 6.2-inning, 13-strikeout start and the accompanying 12-run outburst from the Longhorn bats completed a three-game weekend where David Pierce’s group looked the part of the No. 2 team in the country.

For this 2021 squad, and arguably for the Texas Baseball program, No. 2 isn’t good enough. Being placed one spot behind Arkansas is high praise for the Longhorns, who took home a share of the Big 12 regular season title on their way to the final 16.

They still want more.

“I think the feeling in the clubhouse is confidence,” Hansen said Monday morning following Texas 12-2 win over Fairfield. “Just really trusting one another and knowing we are the No. 1 team in the country, I believe. Just really putting that mindset in our work, and that’s just the feeling that we have. We’re going to go out there and do the best that we can, and at the end of the day I think that’s the best team in the country.”

Claiming to be No. 1 isn’t out of line with the way Texas has played this year, and from the person who has guided them to that point, it’s exactly what he wants to hear ahead of a three-game series with South Florida.

“I love that about Pete saying that,” Pierce said. “It absolutely fires me up because if you don’t think you’re the best, you’re not the best. If you don’t think you can compete with anybody in the country, then you have no shot. So you have to have that confidence, if we are or if we’re not, still to be determined. But you’re not going to be if you don’t feel like you’re capable of beating anybody in the country.”

It takes a small company of men and women behind the scenes to maintain a top flight baseball program. From strength and conditioning coaches, to the three assistants, to the training staff, to the wide variety of roles filled by support staffers, they all follow Pierce’s lead to try to help Texas be the best it can on a week-to-week basis.

Pierce took time to thank all those who involved in getting Texas to where it is now. Every part of the program strives to do whatever it can for the players to continue to succeed, Pierce included. Their efforts, and the efforts of the players, have Pierce emotional at times.

“I told them in the team meeting today that they inspire me,” Pierce said. “They make me better. They make me want to come to the ballpark and do everything I can to help them. When you think about it from a coach’s perspective and you’re trying to get team unity, you’re trying to build growth, development, and character, and you just see it play out day in and day out with guys playing their roles, what else do you say when you’re coaching young men and you’re trying to maximize their talents?”

He also mentioned how well the team meshes together, and it isn’t just multi-year program guys like Zach Zubia, who was one of a handful of players on the most recent Texas run to the College World Series. It includes St. John’s transfer Mike Antico, who has been a mainstay at the top of the lineup since conference play began.

Antico may be relatively new to the Texas program, but he understands the standards the program has. Like Hansen, there’s also a desire to prove that Texas is the No. 1 team and earn a seventh championship.

“The goal is Omaha,” Antico said. “This was just one step. Next weekend we take the next step, then we’ll be there and we’ve got to win that thing as well. Everyone’s excited, but the feeling is that we still have got a lot of work to do.”

That work will be important when it begins, but it didn’t start on Monday after Texas played the final game of the regional that started at 8 p.m. Sunday into the following morning. Pierce, who rarely addresses his team after a game, walked into the middle of their huddle just outside the first base dugout after his team advanced to the program’s 11th Super Regional appearance with an important message.

“I said, great job taking care of business, I’m really proud of this team, and I love you,” Pierce said. “And you’ve got tomorrow off. The last thing that I said was the most important thing to them.”

Texas returns to the practice field on Tuesday with knowledge of who its opponent is. It’s just the next team standing in the way of their eventual goal.

“We got bumped down after the Big 12 Tournament, but I think at the end of the year we’re going to show the nation who we really are and that’s the No. 1 team in the nation,” Hansen said.