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Former Mavs standouts ready for NCAA baseball tourney

Scott Welch is nearing the end of a stellar career for the Minnesota Gophers, while Ryan Martin is off to a promising start for the Illinois-Chicago Flames. But what really has the former Missoula Mavericks smiling is that they'll both be playing this weekend in the opening rounds of the NCAA Division I baseball tournament.

"This is my third trip in four years, and it's just as exciting now as it was when I was a freshman," said Welch, a senior shortstop who has been an All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection the past two seasons. "You just want to savor the moment."

"We're definitely not just happy to be here, we want to advance," said Martin, a freshman right-handed pitcher who is undefeated (7-0) this spring.

Minnesota (39-20), the Big Ten regular-season champ and conference tournament runner-up, heads to Long Beach, Calif., regional, where the Gophers open against Washington on Friday. Host Long Beach State, ranked sixth in the nation, and Pepperdine are the other teams fighting to advance from the two-day, double elimination event.

Illinois-Chicago (39-16) won the Horizon Conference title to earn its first NCAA tournament berth. The Flames face a tall order in their opener on Friday at No. 3-ranked Stanford, in a regional that also includes UC Riverside and Richmond.

The winners of the Long Beach and Stanford regionals meet in the super regionals June 6-8 for the right to advance to the College World Series, which starts June 13 at Omaha, Neb.

"I feel good about our chances," said Welch, who would love to cap his collegiate career with his first trip to the World Series. "We're going up against some really good teams, but at the same time, we've beaten a lot of good teams this season."

The 6-foot, 190-pound Welch will finish his career as one of the best hitting infielders in Minnesota history. He won the Big Ten batting title as a junior, hitting .398 in conference play, and batted .339 overall to rank second on the team.

This season, Welch is the Gophers' third-leading hitter with a .356 average, and leads the club with five home runs and 45 RBIs. Blessed with sure hands and a strong arm, he's also been the defensive linchpin on statistically the best fielding team in school history.

"It's been a good year, I've played much more consistently than the first three years," Welch said. "Offensively, I've felt good at the plate, and I've played my best defense. We've set a team record for season defense, and I feel as good about that as anything else."

Welch has a reputation as a fun-loving prankster, and still goes by the nickname "Scooter," just as he did when he was an all-state football and basketball player at Missoula Loyola, and the leader of back-to-back state Legion championship teams in 1997-98. But his road to collegiate success wasn't necessarily a smooth one.

"I arrived here thinking I was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the level of play kind of slapped me in the face," said Welch, who missed almost a month with a broken cheek and batted just .267 as a freshman. "I found out pretty quickly that if you're not getting better every day, some other guy is. And he's after your job."

Welch admits he had doubts at times, but he kept working, kept improving every season.

"I come prepared to play every day," Welch said. "That's not something I say lightly. I know I'll get the job done, because I've put in the work."

Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft is next week, and Welch says he has no idea whether he'll be tabbed. If he isn't, Welch said he'll take his degree in communications and try to find a way to stay close to the game he loves.

"I'd love to give (professional baseball) a shot, but it's good to have that degree," Welch said.

Martin, 19, is four years younger than Welch, and the two never had the chance to play Legion ball together.

"I remember going out to games and watching Scott play," said Martin, who played basketball for Missoula Sentinel and pitched three no-hitters as a Mav. "I loved the way he hit the ball."

Martin was set to go to College of Southern Idaho, but the Illinois-Chicago coach happened to see him on a trip out west, and the next thing Martin knew, he was headed to the Windy City.

"It's been great," Martin said. "We're a young team, building something here. We think our best days are ahead of us."

The 6-6, 205-pound Martin redshirted last year, getting accustomed to college life. This year he's been the Flames' most successful pitcher, ranking nationally with a 2.01 ERA. He's struck out 61 batters and issued just 19 walks in 67 innings.

Asked to give a personal scouting report, Martin said: "An 86-88 mph fastball with a curve and cutter, good control, not afraid to go inside."

Martin's season highlight came last week at the Horizon tournament, when he pitched a two-hit shutout and set a conference tournament record with 13 strikeouts in a 9-0 win over Butler. Martin, a business finance major, has been just as successful off the field, making the dean's list for his academic excellence.

"I always thought if I could have this much fun playing baseball, and get college paid for, that would be great," Martin said. "Anything beyond that would be icing on the cake."

The odds are against it, of course, but it's possible that Ryan could face Welch in a couple of weeks at the super regionals.

Now that would be a moment worth savoring.

Reporter Rial Cummings can be reached at 523-5255 or by e-mail at rcummings@missoulian.com

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