As a young baseball player growing up in Nicaragua, Norchad Omier dreamed of becoming the next Dennis Martinez.

That is, until a local basketball coach spotted him. Seeing how tall he was, the coach convinced the middle school pitcher that he should give basketball a try.

It turned out to be a life-changing decision.

Instead of following in the footsteps of Martinez, the national hero who became the 1st from his country to play in the Major Leagues, Omier has made his own mark as the 1st Nicaraguan to earn a basketball scholarship to a Division 1 college in the United States.

On Saturday night, he’ll gain an even greater claim to fame when he tries to help Miami take the next step toward a national championship against UConn in the Final Four at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

“I think basketball chose me,” Omier said during a recent media availability on campus. “I know I was good at baseball and (people would) tell me this is the sport I should play. But I was just like, I was a natural.”

That’s not an entire accurate depiction of how things actually went.

Omier had trouble getting the hang of dribbling and shooting at 1st. So, while he worked on improving at those fundamentals, he concentrated on rebounding. Every time the ball came off the rim, he made it his mission to grab it.

It’s a skill that continues to be his trademark, even as the rest of his game has rounded into form.

Although he’s small for a low-post player at 6-foot-7, Omier has established himself as 1 of the best rebounders in the country. He’s used his 248-pound bulk, quickness and anticipation to lead the Hurricanes with 10.1 rebounds per game.

“He’s a tough hombre,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson after Omier posted a 12-point, 13-rebound double-double to help upset his top-seeded Cougars in the Sweet 16. “There’s so many people that have a romanticism with how tall someone is. It’s like if you’re 6-10, you’re better than you are at 6-7.

“We played a lot of 7-footers this year. None of them bothered us. But this kid, because of how good he is, he impacts winning in many ways. There were so many loose balls that got batted around. He always got them.”

Because of his size and tenacity on the glass, Omier has been compared to Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.

But only as a rebounder.

While Rodman was infamous for antics that irritated everyone around him, including some of his own teammates, Omier goes about his business with a constant smile on his face and a positive demeanor that’s had the opposite effect on the Hurricanes’ chemistry.

“Life is good,” said the 3rd-year sophomore, who transferred to Miami from Arkansas State. “I just try to smile all the time and that translates to my teammates. If they see me happy, they’re going to get happy, too.”

Coach Jim Larrañaga recently called Omier “the heart and soul of our team.”

That was undeniably evident after the Hurricanes’ primary inside presence went down with an ankle injury just 1:06 into their ACC Tournament semifinal game against Duke.

Miami came into the tournament as the top seed after sharing the league’s regular-season title with Virginia. But without Omier to battle with the Blue Devils’ fleet of bigs, the Hurricanes were handed an 85-78 loss that likely affected their NCAA Tournament seeding.

Thanks to Omier’s quick recovery, they’ve survived the tougher road to the Final Four by surviving an opening-round test against Drake, then upsetting 4th-seeded Indiana, top-seeded Houston and 2nd-seeded Texas to earn their ticket to Houston.

Omier has averaged 10.5 points and 13.3 rebounds in 4 NCAA Tournament games while playing solid defense despite encountering foul trouble in each of the past 2 victories.

“He’s a great piece for us,” leading scorer and ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong said. “He’s a monster on the boards, and he just plays with aggression. I feel like he stepped up coming into the tournament, and he’s just buying in [to] the team. He’s just playing together, and he’s getting rebounds and passing it.”

That’s the kind of grunt work a lot of players try to avoid.

But Omier revels in it.

It’s the reason he decided to stick with basketball as a youngster, even though he was much more accomplished on the baseball diamond.

“I like winning and if you rebound and (the other team) doesn’t get that 2nd shot, you win the game. That’s it,” he said. … “It’s fun to win, and I was winning at home.”

He’s been doing his share of it in the U.S. as well. Enough so that with 2 more victories with the Hurricanes in Houston this weekend, he can become both a national champion here and a national hero in Nicaragua.

If he isn’t 1 already.