Aggies Get NCAA Bid

The third seeded Aggies (42-16) will take on Mountain West Conference champion and number two seed UNLV (45-15) Friday at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona at 2:00 p.m. MDT. The other game Friday will feature number one seed and host Arizona State (50-12) against number four seed Central Connecticut State (31-15-2)

It has been a record-breaking season for the New Mexico State Aggie Baseball team and now they have added another notch to the record total by earning the first NCAA Tournament At-Large bid in school history.

The regional tournament is a double-elimination format. If the Aggies win Friday, they will play Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and if they lose they will play at 11:00 a.m. The championship game will be played Sunday.

Last year the Aggies earned their first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title and earned an automatic bid. Now the Aggies hope to add another record to the slate - the school's first ever NCAA Tournament victory.

Last year the Aggies lost to Houston (9-0) and San Diego (2-1) at the Mesa, Arizona Regional.

New Mexico State Coach Rocky Ward, in his second stint as head coach at NMSU, recognizes the next step his program has taken.

"It's an at-large bid for New Mexico State which legitimizes our program," says Ward. "This is your peers saying that you've made it. A lot of people thought we'd be a four seed. I felt we deserved a three seed and we got it."

Ward was the Aggies' head coach from 1997-2000, then served as the team's number one assistant as his father, Gary Ward, took the reigns of the program as head coach for the next two seasons. Rocky took over again for his father after he stepped down following the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

"It doesn't feel any different," says Rocky. "It felt (last year) like it was equally my program as well as his. The accomplishment is bigger because it's much more difficult to get an at-large bid."

It also marks the second consecutive year that the Aggies travel to the Phoenix area for the regional. Last year NMSU played at Hohokam Park in Mesa.

"It should be a reasonable comfort zone," says Ward. "UNLV is a tough draw and Arizona State is a great team. I'm sure they thought they'd be a top eight seed, but maybe they are the nine seed. Central Connecticut has been there before. UNLV and us have had very similar seasons. We both have the same numbers."

NMSU comes into this week's play after going 4-5 in their last nine games including losing two straight at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

The Aggies had a chance to clinch the Sun Belt Conference regular season title against South Alabama in Mobile two weeks ago, but lost three straight.

"I think South Alabama played outstanding baseball and maybe we got overwhelmed a little by their history and tradition," said Ward. "They took advantage of every little mistake we made."

After sweeping a four-game, non-conference series at home against UT Pan American, the Aggies entered the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the number two seed. But NMSU lost 5-1 to seventh seeded Arkansas-Little Rock and dropped a 9-4 decision to the host team, UL.

"We just couldn't get into it at the conference tournament," said Ward. "We didn't seem to motivated. Maybe they were tired. But this is a whole new deal. I think this is a new lease on life. They had two days on a bus (coming back from the league tournament) to think about what they put in jeopardy. I think you will see a bunch of kids that will play their tails off. Maybe we grew up a little."

New Mexico State already has set school records for most wins in a season (42), most conference victories in a season (15), highest conference finish ever (2nd) and features the NCAA Division I leader in home runs and runs batted in, Billy Becher.

The Tempe, Arizona native will enter the NCAA Tournament with a .421 batting average, 31 home runs and 110 RBI. His 110 RBI are the most for any NCAA Division I player since the 1998 season.

But the Aggie offense has struggled recently, scoring just 11 runs and picking up 20 hits in their last three games.

"I don't think pitching is going to be a problem," said Ward. "We've struggled a bit offensively on the road the last couple of series. I think that has put pressure on us defensively. We are an offensive oriented club. When we swing the bat well, we play good defense. Every mistake we've made lately has come back to hit us right in the mouth. We've been putting too much pressure on ourselves. Hopefully we will look at ourselves a little differently."

New Mexico State will send senior right hander Jason Williams to the mound in Friday's first game.

Williams is 7-5 with a 5.85 earned run average, has been the team's top starting pitcher the last two seasons, and started the team's first NCAA Tournament game against Houston a year ago.

"There isn't a reason to make any changes. He's been our guy. He's a guy that will go out and give us a great effort. He gave us a great effort against Little Rock. We just couldn't score and we played terrible defensively. We went to him a month and a half-ago and talked about taking him out of his usual Friday spot in the rotation. We asked him if he wanted the ball and he said yes."

Williams has responded by posting a 3-2 record with a 4.73 earned run average in his last seven starts.

Last year Williams entered the NCAA Tournament with a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings pitched, but allowed eight hits and six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings pitched in the Aggies' loss to Houston.

Williams and his teammates hope that the second time around will be sweeter.


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