The No. 1 team in the nation isn't shying away from the rankings and being the top seed in the Division II baseball championship tournament.

It's all part of the legacy of Colorado Mesa baseball.

"I think Skip may have not wanted to be the No. 1 seed, but we expected it and we wanted it," senior center fielder Josh Shapiro said. "We've always had a target on our back. I know with Will (Dixon), we've had it ever since we've been here. No matter what the stat, a lot of the time (we've been) a top-three team in the nation and there's always been the target on your back, so I think there's no better way than to go out with the same target we came in with."

The Mavericks (50-10) open play in the NCAA Division II tournament at 5 p.m. (MDT) today against New York Institute of Technology at the USA Baseball Training Center in Cary, North Carolina. They'll face either Central Missouri or Ashland (Ohio) on Monday in either in the second round in Bracket 1 or an elimination game.

With a relatively young squad — five sophomores are in the starting lineup — it's the 10 seniors who have shown the way all season. Three seniors are everyday starters, Shapiro, second baseman Dominic DeMarco and right fielder Hunter Douglas. Dixon is the key closer and Garrett Hutson, a senior transfer, is one of the starting pitchers. The other seniors are pitchers JR McDermott, AJ Landis, John Beaudrie, Nick Cardinale and catcher Tyler Sandoval.

Dixon said the Mavs knew there was something special about this group right away.

"I think most people never get a chance to see it, but I'd say it probably happened two, three days into the fall," Dixon said. "We've been a pretty good family all year. There haven't been many issues so to speak, and we're having fun with it. There's a lot of old guys and there's a lot of really young guys.

"As a group of old guys, together we're having as much fun as we can and I think it's rubbing off on the younger kids. I came into this year saying I'm going to have as much fun as possible because I don't get to do this any more. I think it's kind of rubbed off on the freshmen to have as much fun as possible and still be locked in, ready to go."

Junior pitcher Trevin Reynolds, who, along with freshman Andrew Morris, is being considered to start the series opener, said the seniors have guided the way, right up to how to prepare for this week. Most of them have played in the national championship tournament, although it's their first trip to Cary — the 2017 World Series was in Grand Prairie, Texas.

"Talking to all the seniors, they want to keep it loose, relaxed," Reynolds said. "JR said the only way we're going to have success, and he's been around, is to keep it loose and have fun, as much fun as we can, but not get too wild. Go have fun and do whatever to stay loose."

CMU coach Chris Hanks reminds them of that before every game, and has said all season that the youth on this team helps keep the mood light, but it's also a fiercely competitive team.

"Skip says it before every game, play loose, but not too loose, and play tight, but not too tight," DeMarco said. "Somewhere between there and we have fun with me. Me and Shap before every game say let's have fun with it."

They have fun on and off the field, but when they step between the lines, they heed a couple of Hanks' well-known lines: Lock in and play hard.

Shapiro, who hits in the No. 9 spot in the lineup, is referred to by his teammates as "the best 9-hole hitter in America." It wasn't always like that this season for Shapiro, who has waited his turn to be in the everyday lineup.

"I was struggling, there was a stretch, we were at UCCS and I was like 0 for 30, that's no joke," he said, laughing. "I seriously was 0 for 20 and Skip was like, 'Hey...' and I hadn't been bunting … Skip said, 'You have to put one bunt in between the lines a game. Once you do that and you start getting hits, we can talk about it.' Ever since then, now I really do probably bunt once a game."

His speed allows the left-handed hitter to drag bunt and beat the throw for base hits. Once he started putting down bunts, either to move runners or for base hits, he started hitting line drives.

"I don't know how it happened, but I figured out how to hit the ball," said Shapiro, who's hitting .338, fourth on the team, with seven doubles, four triples and three home runs. "It's been cool. It surprises me just as much as it surprises everyone else."

Shapiro was the national Student-Athlete Advisory Council Division II representative last year, a term that ended in January. During his tenure, he addressed the entire NCAA Convention, so stepping into the batter's box in a clutch situation isn't a big deal. But speaking up in a team meeting? That's pressure.

"I don't know about speaking in front of the convention, I get more scared talking to my teammates than I do in front of 3,000 people," he said.

Why is that?

"We'll wear him out if he screws up," Dixon said.

"Talking in front of adults, they think it's cool," Shapiro added, "but my friends harass me."

The players on this squad, the seniors say, know their roles, and they'll do whatever is asked of them, bunting a runner into scoring position, changing positions on defense, moving from the starting rotation into the bullpen or vice versa.

The Mavericks were introduced to the crowd at the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series on Wednesday night to a rousing ovation, the night before they boarded their charter for their final road trip of the season.

"Everyone's going to be good in Cary," DeMarco said. "It doesn't matter if you're the eighth seed or the one seed, you're going to play everyone's best. You've gotta win ballgames. It doesn't matter if you're the one, four, eight seed, win four to win it all."

In order to play loose, the Mavs have to play like it's just another game, even though they know it isn't.

"No, it's not just another tournament," Dixon said, "but we're still going to have as much fun as we can."

Recommended for you