HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Coming in to the 2018 baseball season, Gabe Montenegro had yet to take the diamond in a regular-season game at Pete Taylor Park and had no idea what his role might be while trying to find a spot in a crowded outfield.
"I had no idea," Montenegro said. "I just tried to do what the coaches wanted me to do. I just wanted to get on the field."
It didn't take long.
A pinch-hit triple in the second game of the season against Mississippi State University caught the coaches' attention and Montenegro made his first start of the season the next day, Feb. 18, going 2-for-3 with a RBI out of the eight spot in the batting order.
The next weekend against the University of Tennessee-Martin, the redshirt freshman outfielder from Guatemala City, Guatemala, found himself batting leadoff, and since March 10, Montenegro has been a fixture atop one of the most potent offenses in Division I college baseball.
"That's what's neat about sports and athletics, you never know who is going to step up," USM coach Scott Berry said. "You talk about being getting an opportunity and being ready for that opportunity. His opportunity came fairly early in the year, but he didn't miss on it.
"The big hit, off the bench, against Mississippi State, that game opened a lot of eyes in his abilities at a young age, and then when he got an opportunity to start later on, when we decided to go all lefties in a (hitting) lineup, he didn't miss on that opportunity, either."
Montenegro will be the first Golden Eagle to step into the batter's box in the bottom of the first inning, when second-seeded USM (43-16) meets third-seeded Dallas Baptist University (40-19) at 7 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium.
Top-seed and host University of Arkansas (39-18) will take on fourth-seeded Oral Roberts University (38-18) at 2 p.m. Friday in the opening game of the double-elimination NCAA postseason bracket.
The Golden Eagles, who won Conference USA regular-season and tournament championships, come into the regional boasting an offense that ranks fifth nationally in runs (478) and runs per game (8.1) and 11th in team batting average (.304).
Montenegro has been a big part of that, hitting .304 with 12 doubles, two triples, two home runs, 38 RBIs and 43 runs scored. Since ascending to the top of the order, the Golden Eagles have posted a 33-13 record (71.7 winning percentage).
"It's pretty neat how he's developed and contributed and been an impact player, especially as that leadoff hitter," Berry said. "He was nowhere near targeted as a leadoff hitter when we started this season, but here at the end of the season, he's established himself and solidified that position, for sure."
Sports, particularly baseball, run in the Montenegro family. His mother, Melanie Slowing, swam in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. His father, Mauricio Montenegro, was a third baseman and played on the Guatemalan national baseball team.
His son followed in his father's footsteps, playing for the 2012 Guatemalan national team that won the Senior League World Series.
In 2017, USM recruited Montenegro out of Tampa, Fla., where he played two seasons at Carrollwood Day High School for Coach Nick Rodriguez.
Until then, Montenegro had not heard of USM.
"They came to see me one game and that's how it all started," Montenegro said. "I came up for a visit and really like it here, the people, the school, the campus, the field, everything."
Montenegro was redshirted last year, and after returning from a summer playing for the Acadiana Cane Cutters of Texas Collegiate League, he went through fall practice before helping the Guatemalan National Team to a bronze medal in the 2017 Central America Games in December.
Though he had performed well in the fall, when preseason practice opened after the New Year, Montenegro still was looking at an uphill battle for a spot.
USM returned two starting outfielders, second-team All-C-USA right fielder Mason Irby and C-USA Freshman of the Year, center fielder Matt Wallner. Outfielder Hunter Slater had moved to first base, but redshirt freshman Jaylon Keys, junior college transfer Fred Franklin and senior Daniel Keating were ahead in the pecking order to fill that vacancy.
Keys got the nod the first two games, hitting leadoff for the Golden Eagles. Second baseman Matthew Guidry also was tried at the top spot in the order for a few games.
But Montenegro continued to produce, continued to hit, and eventually moved not only into a starting role, but eventually was hitting first.
"I usually hit second," Montenegro said of his high school career. "But I'm fine hitting first. "I just like to work the count as much I can. I don't try to guess. If try t guess, they usually just get me out. You're just looking for a pitch to hit."
And hit he has, earning C-USA All-Freshman accolades.
His 66 hits rank fourth on the team, behind C-USA Player of the Year Luke Reynolds, Wallner and Slater, the three-four-five hitters in the batting order. His .400 on-base percentage ranks fourth on the team and includes 28 walks and eight hit-by-pitch passes.
And the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Montenegro has proved to have some pop in his bat, whether whistling the ball down the lines or into the outfield gaps.
At the C-USA championship last week, Montenegro hit arguably the longest home run of the 14-game tournament, crushing a towering fly ball some 25 feet past the right-field fence. The ball hit the concrete walkway on the fly and one-hopped the facade of the parking garage at MGM Park.
"He hit that ball real far," USM senior shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd said. "When he came out, I told, 'Wow, Gabe, I didn't know you had that in you.' But he got a hold of that one."
The blast came just after Florida Atlantic University had cut USM's lead to two runs the previous inning.
"I think we were 5-3, and they had just hit a three-run homer, so for him to have that at-bat, and all of a sudden get that momentum back with us, and make it 6-3 and a three run ballgame instead of two, that was pretty special." Berry said. "I think that's what really created the momentum and gave us that spark we needed to go ahead and finish off a tough FAU team.
Montenegro was one four Golden Eagles selected to the All-Tournament team, and with what became a 12-3 win in the championship game, USM secured a spot in the 64-team NCAA postseason for a third consecutive season.
"It's very cool," Montenegro said of the upcoming weekend in Arkansas. "I'm just excited about going up there and trying to win it."