(Photo from the UNM baseball website, seen here)
The University of New Mexico (UNM) Lobos have been Mountain West Conference Champions for seven of the past eight years. During this successful period they have had the highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the conference multiple times, and in the 2017 season, they ranked in the top 10 in the nation in batting average.
Part of the team’s extreme success in recent years is undoubtedly due to the continual presence of Head Coach Ray Birmingham. Coach Birmingham has been at UNM for 11 years and has employed a consistent coaching strategy throughout that time. Coming from a junior college background, Coach Birmingham has in-depth knowledge on how to develop players and he focuses on that rather than on getting a highly ranked recruiting class.
“There’s a lot of special players out there,” Coach Birmingham explains. “There’s a lot of kids out there that are great athletes that just haven’t been taught the game of baseball.” Employing this philosophy, Coach Birmingham looks for players who are great athletes, who also want to start focusing on baseball. From there, Coach Birmingham and his staff work with players to fit positions and gain technical skills.
The other aspect that makes Coach Birmingham unique is his self-described commitment to New Mexico and the Southwest region. At the beginning of his tenure, he had offers to move to bigger schools and conferences, but chose to stay with UNM because New Mexico is his home state. With a coaching resume that spans nearly six decades, Coach Birmingham knows where to find the best-of-the-best in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico itself.
“I want competitive, good character people that wanna learn how to play this game and maybe make something out of it,” said Coach Birmingham. “Jared Mang is one of those players.”
Mang committed to UNM in his junior year of high school along with his younger brother. Getting the chance to play collegiate ball with his brother, who will enter the team as a red-shirt freshman, was one of the reasons Mang chose UNM. Much like Coach Birmingham, work ethic and being more than a ball-player are important to Mang.
Though he has high hopes that he will perform well enough to get drafted at the end of the season, Mang isn’t going to let that affect the way he plays.
“[I’ll] think about it as little as possible,” said Mang. “I’ll just go out and play games. It’s one of those things you can’t control too much, so you just get out and take care of business.” Mang recognizes that the best way to get drafted will be to keep up his stellar performance and let his abilities continue to speak for themselves in the way he plays.
One fact that Mang thinks separates him from other players is his versatility. Though Mang will likely spend most of his time in right field this season, he can play any outfield position with skill. This allows his coach to work different players into the lineup to fit different situations without any worry.
“I’ve worked really hard at being the player who can do multiple things,” said Mang. One of those things, he hopes, will be leading his team to another championship, expressing that the Lobos can compete with anyone if they play to their potential.
Coach Birmingham follows the same line of thinking, aiming high this season with the hope of taking a Mountain West Conference title again and having a shot at the NCAA World Series. In order to do that, their pitching staff will have to improve to back up an offense that is consistently productive.
Pitching is more difficult to acquire for a non-Power Five school like UNM because pitchers who already have powerful or consistent arms out of high school are likely to head to a Power Five school or the MLB Draft. Therefore, Coach Birmingham once again applies his developmental strategy and looks for position players with good arms, or part-time pitchers, to make the switch to full-time pitching.
Considering their difficult non-conference schedule to start the year, the Lobos will need to put all the pieces together on the road to the Mountain West Conference Tournament. However, Coach Birmingham sees this as a benefit rather than an obstacle.
“Our mentality is to find the very best and play the very best,” said Coach Birmingham. “I’m not trying to keep a job. I’m trying to get New Mexico a chance at the World Series.” Success against non-competitive teams doesn’t prepare teams well to be champions, and Coach Birmingham looks to lead the Lobos to a championship season year-after-year even if that means having a less outstanding record.