University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Ben Butler (1) pitches against California Baptist in a game at the UTRGV Baseball Stadium on Saturday, April 20, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Part of establishing a successful program includes meeting challenges head on.

Second-year UTRGV baseball coach Derek Matlock has challenged his team from the start, scheduling 10 games against Big 12 opponents for nonconference games this season. Those early tests have paid off for the Western Athletic Conference-leading Vaqueros (29-15, 14-4), but they have another test on the horizon.

UTRGV is set to defend its first-place standing with a three-game WAC series on the road against the New Mexico State Aggies, who trail the Vaqueros by just one game in conference play.

“It’s going to be a grind out series. They’re very well-coached and they have great pitching and great offense. We’re just excited for the challenge,” Matlock said. “That’s what this thing is all about, is living up to those challenges, going and competing. We’re excited to get in there at their ballpark. They’re going to have a big crowd. That’s what you play for, you want the biggest challenge. That’s what you do it for.”

The biggest key to watch in this weekend’s WAC matchup is UTRGV’s pitching and defense against New Mexico State’s bats. The Vaqueros hold the lowest ERA during WAC play at 3.21 in 165.1 innings pitched and are second in the conference in fielding percentage at .977.

“It’s been a whole staff effort. We’ve had some starters have really great games, we’ve had some back-end guys have some really great games, and we’ve had some bridge guys in the middle that have come in and done well,” Matlock said. “Our defense is right there, too, so the pitching and the defense, No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference with nine games left to play. I’ve always said defense wins championships. That’s a positive thing. Our offense is making some strides. We got guys that are getting better every day.”

UTRGV’s pitching and defense will need to be on point against the Aggies as they roll out the nation’s highest batting average at .365 and are fourth in the country with 65 home runs on the year.

“They were in the (NCAA) Regionals last year and they have a ballpark where the ball really jumps,” Matlock said. “These guys like to hit a lot of home runs.”

First pitch of the Vaqueros conference road series against New Mexico State is scheduled for 7 tonight at Presley Askew Field. Game 2 is set for 3 p.m. Saturday, with the series finale slated for noon on Sunday. All games can be viewed on the WAC Digital Network.