North Texas entered what has traditionally been the dead spot in its sports schedule during the school year just a few days ago.
Basketball season is over, while football and the rest of the major fall sports are months away, leaving softball as the only team sport in action.
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said recently he hopes that will change in the next few years with the addition of a baseball program — a goal that has been bandied about for years.
“We are in the exploration stage,” Villarreal said. “We started softball in a public park. That made it harder on student-athletes and coaches. I won’t put baseball in until we have a facility. We have identified some folks in terms of funding. It will depend on how quickly we can put things together.”
Villarreal said that now is an ideal time for UNT to look at bringing the sport back after completing several other projects. UNT opened Apogee Stadium, its new $79 million football venue, last year and also now has the Mean Green Village in place.
UNT bought and converted the old Liberty Christian campus to create a large section of the village that is home to several of the school’s women’s sports teams, including its softball and volleyball programs.
Now that the rest of UNT’s programs have viable homes, the school can now turn its attention to adding baseball.
UNT has recent experience starting programs from scratch after adding its softball program in 2004.
The addition of softball increased the number of female athletes at UNT, which would help address Title IX issues that could come up if baseball was added.
UNT has been ranked No. 1 nationally on the Penn State Gender Equity Report Card that measures schools’ performance in terms of gender equity issues multiple times during Villarreal’s tenure at UNT, which began in 2001.
UNT has a committee in place that has been examining the viability of bringing baseball back. The school sponsored the sport from 1984-88 before it was disbanded.
While UNT has some issues to deal with in terms of building a field and starting a program from scratch, it does have some potential advantages when it comes to a building a program.
UNT is located in a talent hotbed for baseball and is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, which features a solid baseball league. The Sun Belt sent three teams to the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in 13 years in 2011 and has had multiple teams receive bids in 23 straight seasons.
Denton has a strong baseball community from youth leagues to the high school level. Ryan played in the state title game in 2003 and 2004 and produced Austin Jackson, who is now the Detroit Tigers’ center fielder. Fellow Ryan product Javy Guerra pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers and several other local players have gone on to play professionally or for major colleges.
“It would be great for North Texas to get a team,” longtime Ryan coach Bret Warnack said. “This is a great baseball area with the Metroplex and the teams around here with us, Coppell, Flower Mound, Lewisville, Celina and Pilot Point. They would have a pool of players to choose from. It would be exciting for Denton.”
UNT has struggled at times to attract top athletes from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but would have an advantage in baseball because of the high number of quality players and a smaller number of Division I programs in the area.
TCU, UT-Arlington and Dallas Baptist are all prominent programs, and Big 12 schools also recruit the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“North Texas would be able to keep players home,” Warnack said. “I don’t see that being an issue. It will take them awhile to build it, but it would be a great opportunity for North Texas and the players in the area.”
Villarreal believes that with the right facility and coaching staff in place, UNT could quickly build a solid program.
“I feel like — and have since I got here — baseball is a sport we can compete in on a national basis,” Villarreal said. “There is a tremendous amount of talent here that is going to other places that would like to play at home.”
Having a home has always been the problem for UNT. The school entered into an agreement with the Denton Outlaws of the Texas Collegiate League to build and share a facility on UNT’s campus. TCL officials had hoped to have the field built by the summer of 2005.
That deal fell through, forcing the Outlaws to play on a makeshift field at UNT on the site that is still reserved for a field across the street from the Mean Green Athletic Center. The Outlaws eventually left UNT, played at Ryan and Lake Dallas high schools and withdrew from the league.
UNT started its softball program without having a home field and played at a city park for two seasons before moving into Lovelace Stadium, its current home on campus.
“We do not have the money in hand,” Villarreal said of the funding for a new venue. “It is in the capital campaign. It is one of our projects and priorities.”
UNT is hoping its plans will come together quickly and fill in what has been a down time in its sports calendar.
“Baseball will bring in large numbers of people in the spring,” Villarreal said. “With the matchups we can create, we would be able to bridge the gap — along with our softball program — to the fall and bring people to campus.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .