May 23, 2007 - 9:00 pm
In his four years at UNLV, center fielder Ryan Kowalski has seen a lot of playing time for teams good and bad. But one of his biggest fans has rarely seen him in action.
Scott Waniewski missed half of his stepson’s college career while spending about 1 1/2 years employed in Iraq as a Navy lieutenant commander in charge of medical supplies.
"He told me it was a grind and you had to be mentally focused every day," Kowalski said.
Waniewski is back from the war and expects to be at Wilson Stadium at 11 a.m. today to watch Kowalski and the Rebels play Utah in the first game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
A loss would send sixth-seeded UNLV (22-34) to a losers’ bracket game against New Mexico or San Diego State at 7 p.m.
If the Rebels win, they advance to play top-seeded Texas Christian at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Baseball is no comparison to war, but Kowalski knows something about enduring a mental grind. His senior season at UNLV has been a constant struggle.
The Rebels are one loss from tying the school record set in 1982. Still, Kowalski is optimistic because of a four-game winning streak, even if those victories came at the expense of Southern Utah and Air Force.
"I think things are going to start working out for us," Kowalski said. "You have to go out there every day and say, ‘We’re going to change it today. We’re going to go out there and play our best baseball.’
"I could see people saying, ‘No, they’re not going to do anything.’ But we’re working hard, and I think everyone is mentally tough enough to think we can win this."
Kowalski, from University of San Diego High School, has been penciled into the starting lineup by UNLV coach Buddy Gouldsmith 176 times in his career, and he has played in 216 games.
He is batting .335 this season, second on the team, and has one home run, 38 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. He was named to the All-MWC first team Tuesday.
"Kowalski has been outstanding and exactly what you would expect out of a senior," Gouldsmith said. "He’s a guy you get a consistent effort out of all the time, and he’s been a clutch performer."
The Rebels won the conference tournament and made NCAA regional appearances in Kowalski’s first two seasons. But two losing seasons have followed.
Kowalski said his mother and three sisters, who live in San Diego, also plan to be in attendance today. He said his stepfather has been a big influence in his life since childhood.
While in Iraq, Waniewski followed Kowalski’s progress as closely as possible by listening to games on the Internet.
"He would call me every once in a while and we would talk about it," Kowalski said. "He would be up early in the morning, when we would be playing here at UNLV, sitting over there listening to the game. He wouldn’t miss a game no matter what."
• NOTES — The Rebels and Utes split six games this season. … The MWC announced the tournament will be hosted by TCU in 2008 and 2009.UNLV SportsStory Index
NO. 1 TEXAS CHRISTIAN • COACH: Jim Schlossnagle • RECORD: 43-12, 20-3 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Jake Arrieta. The junior right-hander is 8-3 with a 3.36 ERA in 15 starts. He tied for the national lead with 14 wins as a sophomore. • KEY HITTER: Austin Adams. The senior outf ielder is batting .330 and leads the conference with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs. He has started 203 games in his career. NO. 2 BRIGHAM YOUNG • COACH: Vance Law • RECORD: 35-18, 17-7 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Jesse Craig. Drafted by the Atlanta Braves out of Basic High School in 2001, he pitched for the Community College of Southern Nevada in 2005. The senior right-hander is 10-2 with a 2.80 ERA in 19 starts. • KEY HITTER: Kent Walton. The sophomore second baseman/outfielder is hitting .343 with eight homers, 41 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. NO. 3 UTAH • COACH: Bill Kinneberg • RECORD: 24-29, 12-12 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Stephen Fife. The sophomore is 6-2 with a 4.68 ERA. He is 2-0 against UNLV, with one win as a starter and one in relief. • KEY HITTER: Jay Brossman. The senior first baseman is hitting .349 with 10 homers. He is the Utes’ career leader in hits (306) and RBIs (181). NO. 4 SAN DIEGO STATE • COACH: Tony Gwynn • RECORD: 28-28, 12-12 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Lance Sewell. A sophomore left-hander, he is 5-5 with a 3.28 ERA in 14 starts. He has allowed just six homers in 105 2/3 innings over two seasons. • KEY HITTER: Nick Romero. The sophomore third baseman is batting .322 with six homers and 44 RBIs. He hit nine homers as a freshman. NO. 5 NEW MEXICO • COACH: Rich Alday • RECORD: 26-28, 12-12 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Bobby LaFromboise. The junior left-hander is 6-3 with a 3.73 ERA in 12 starts. He has 68 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings. • KEY HITTER: Jordan Pacheco. A finalist for the Wallace Award, presented to the nation’s top player, the junior second baseman is batting .421 with five homers. NO. 6 UNLV • COACH: Buddy Gouldsmith • RECORD: 22-34, 10-14 MWC • KEY PITCHER: Craig Heyer. The junior right-hander, 6-8 with a 5.80 ERA in 17 starts, leads the staff in innings (104) and strikeouts (76). • KEY HITTER: Keith Smith. The only Rebels player to start all 56 games, the senior second baseman leads the team in batting average (.348), homers (eight) and RBIs (46). REVIEW-JOURNAL