AUSTIN, Texas — For Texas baseball head coach David Pierce, the 2021 season can not come soon enough. A year ago, the Horns were rolling, with a 14-3 record before it all came crashing down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the Longhorns, armed with one of the Big 12's best pitching staffs, enter 2021 with a clean slate, picked to finish third in the Big 12 in a vote of the conference coaches and ranked No. 9 in the nation by D1Baseball.
"We're doing well, the kids are fired up, we had a great fall," Pierce said in his first spring meeting with the media. "We got better in the fall. I know there's a lot of excitement in our team, and a lot of preparation top to bottom that is going to allow us the potential to play a full season. We're just looking forward to that competition."
Texas will be tested early and often. To open the season, the Horns will play three top-10 teams in three days as the College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, facing No. 8 Mississippi State, No. 6 Arkansas and No. 7 Ole Miss Feb. 19-21. The Horns face Pierce's alma mater, Houston, in a three-game set March 5-7. The following weekend, Texas will host perhaps its biggest non-conference series of the series, with No. 18 South Carolina coming to Austin. It will be the first time the two programs have met on the diamond since the 2002 College World Series.
Though that is a daunting non-conference slate for any team, regardless of the talent level, Pierce said he is confident in the squad he has heading into the spring.
That group will be led on the mound by Ty Madden and Pete Hansen, two young hurlers who flashed signs of stardom on the mound last season.
Madden, a junior righty, is in line to be UT's Friday night starter this season, after a good fall that followed a 2020 spring season in which he posted a 1.80 earned run average in 25 innings of work.
"Ty Madden has positioned himself to be 'that guy,'" Pierce said. "For Ty, especially, it is going to be about health. I know what we're going to get out of Ty every week. He is going to be prepared every week."
Hansen stood out as a freshman in 2020, throwing 17 scoreless innings of work with 18 strikeouts.
For the better part of the last four years, Duke Ellis was the spark, the vocal leader, the guy the team could count on to stretch a single into a double late in a crucial contest. Ellis signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago White Sox, but St. John's transfer Mike Antico has arrived to replace him in center field. Pierce noted that does not know whether Antico can replace Ellis, but said Antico and Ellis play with a similar style.
"Bringing in a Mike Antico, we don't know if he's 'that guy,' [but] we think he's pretty good," said Pierce. "Evidently, everybody else in the conference thinks he's pretty good as well."
"Mike's been awesome," right-handed pitcher Tristan Stevens said. "You know, the thing that really stood out to all of us when he came in was, we heard how good he was when he was at St. John's, how he had won some accolades. But his work ethic was impressive."
Pierce was happy to report that his squad had not had any problems with COVID protocols, nor had it been derailed by positive tests.
"Coming back, we've been pretty healthy," Pierce said. "We've had a couple guys that were in and out, but fortunately, we haven't been disrupted where we had to stop at any time."
For Pierce and his squad, the idea that Texas could be one of the nation's best in 2021 has been kept quiet. Maybe it is the fact that Texas, in its last full season in 2019, was ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches Poll on March 18, only to be dropped out of the top 25 a month later. Maybe it is Pierce's coaching style. Or maybe, the Longhorns aren't worried about the rankings; they're simply happy to be out at "The Disch" this spring, no matter the record, as long as they can enjoy a full baseball season again.
"Actually we haven't talked about it at all, Pierce said. "I think it is something we accept, we look at, we understand the expectations.