EDINBURG — The defending Western Athletic Conference regular season champion UTRGV Vaqueros returned to the diamond Friday as the baseball team held its first official practice of the new year.

While 2019 was historic for the UTRGV baseball program, 2020 is a brand new season with a new group of players, new goals, and additions to their home ballpark.

“Any time you’re starting 0-0, you got to be pretty excited. We’ve been recruiting, working on the facility, doing things that really we don’t love to do as much as we love coaching these kids,” UTRGV head baseball coach Derek Matlock said. “I think they have a little bit more culture, a little bit more confidence and I think that helps. This program had some pretty rough seasons for a while, but we haven’t done anything yet, so we’ve got to outwork ourselves and got to do a lot better than last year.”

On the first day of practice, the Vaqueros faced off against each other with a four-inning intersquad scrimmage, competing against each other in a game-like situation.

Two key members back from last year’s WAC champion squad are Christian Sepulveda and Andy Atwood, a pair of seniors who will hold down the middle of the infield for UTRGV at shortstop and second base.

“It’s fun to be out here and finally get to be together as a team, becoming one as a unit and everyone’s getting to know each other a little more now that we get to practice together,” Sepulveda said.

“We have a new group of people and we’re just trying to get better each day and that’s what we’re focused on,” Atwood said. “We just want to focus on the details, the small things, and hopefully that will lead to bigger accomplishments as the season progresses.”

During the offseason, Matlock and the UTRGV baseball staff was focused on upgrading the Vaqueros’ home.

Improvements to UTRGV Baseball Stadium include an ivy wall in centerfield, freshly planted palm trees beyond the outfield, covered batting cages, a padded outfield wall, a new netting structure and a deck in right field equipped with bar-b-que pits for season-ticket holders.

The view from the new decks in right field that feature bar-b-que pits for some season-ticket holders.

“We’ll have 10 season-ticket holders on every deck and it’s going to be pretty exciting for them in the outfield like a big-league game; not a lot of colleges have that kind of seating so we’re excited about that. The new pads, the ivy in centerfield, it’s a little cleaner, newer look, so we’re pretty excited about all the changes,” Matlock said.

And the players are excited about the changes around the ballpark, too. They got involved by painting each step inside the stadium orange, making every step pop with UTRGV colors.

But they’re more excited about the direction of the UTRGV baseball program.

“Coming into this 2020 season, we’re just trying to be bigger and better,” Sepulveda said. “We’re trying to make a regional and win a regional, make a super regional and go to Omaha. Everybody’s trying to work hard to surpass what we did last year and we’re building off that right now.”

UTRGV will open the 2020 season at its new-look UTRGV Baseball Stadium with a four-game series against Big 12 opponent Kansas State beginning Friday, Feb. 14.

Last year, the Vaqueros went on the road for a three-game series against the Wildcats and went 1-2, beating KState 6-5 in the series finale. This season, UTRGV will face major DI programs Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU and Texas.

“We’ve got 10 Big 12 games and it’s exciting for us; we’ve got to see where we’re at,” Matlock said. “We’re not going to dodge anybody, we’re going to play the best teams. The better teams you play, the better you become and I think it’s a positive in our direction.”

UTRGV will also host Fan Day at noon Saturday, Feb. 1 featuring a baseball youth clinic led by players and coaches offered to children ages 5-13.

After the clinic, the UTRGV baseball team will face off against each other in an Orange vs. Gray intersquad scrimmage beginning at 1 p.m. Cost is $1 benefiting the UTRGV baseball program. Registration for the youth clinic starts at 11 a.m. at UTRGV Baseball Stadium in Edinburg.

bramos@themonitor.com