Work ethic, determination, commitment and effort are just some of the qualities that contribute to the Western Nevada College baseball teamâ€™s success. That the Wildcats are still playing when many junior college teams have packed away their equipment and uniforms is a product of a program designed to make the players successful.
â€œItâ€™s a testament to the work ethic of the players, a testament to the culture established by previous teams and the quality of the position coaches that are developing the players,â€ said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore. â€œWe go into every game expecting to win.”
WNC makes its third straight appearance in the Western District Tournament this week, travelling to Phoenix to determine which team among the four participants will advance to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. The Wildcats last went to the World Series in 2012.
The 21st-ranked Wildcats (39-16) open the double-elimination tournament against host South Mountain Community College (37-23) at noon Thursday.
The timing and the logistics of the Western District Tournament didnâ€™t set up well for the Wildcats. Players have been frantically trying to complete their final exams for the spring semester, and the team began a two-day, 737-mile bus ride to Phoenix on Tuesday.
â€œSome guys didnâ€™t sleep Sunday night because they were studying to take three finals on Monday. We had guys taking finals until 11 p.m. last night, and other guys will be taking finals until 9 or 10 tonight,â€ Whittemore said.
The team was on the bus for eight hours on Tuesday and six more hours on Wednesday.
â€œAnybody with aspirations of playing pro baseball should get used to this schedule,â€ Whittemore said.
Last yearâ€™s team made the trip to Lamar, Colo., to compete in the Western District Tournament. Many of those players are on the current Wildcat team.
â€œIn general, we have a veteran team that has played in a lot of big games and experienced a good deal of success in those big games,â€ Whittemore said.
South Mountain took two of three games from WNC at its field to open the season. Whittemore remembers how thorough those beatings were.
â€œThey handled us,â€ Whittemore said. â€œThey scored a bunch of runs on our pitching staff, and they kept our offense down. â€œThey have a good combination of power, table setters and RBI guys, and they have some frontline pitching as well.
â€œWeâ€™ll have to play our best game of the year to win.â€
Sophomore outfielders Justin Behnke and Chris Akmon, first-team all-region selections, make the Cougarsâ€™ offense go.
Behnke was second in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with a .413 batting average and led all base stealers with 32. Hitting No. 3 in the Cougarsâ€™ lineup, Behnke also knocked in 32 runs and scored 60 times.
Driving in runs has been Akmonâ€™s strength. He led the ACCAC with 56 RBI. Akmon has four homers, 13 doubles and three triples while hitting .358.
Freshmen Sebastian Zawada and Jeff Carter have been reliable hitters for the Cougars as well. Zawada has belted six homers and Carter has a .348 average and 19 RBI.
Jake Bennett, Conor Harber, Alex Fife and Joey Crunkilton are the Wildcatsâ€™ top hitters. Bennett is hitting .333 with 48 runs scored, 10 doubles, five homers and 25 RBI. Harber, who hit better than .400 last year, has a .331 average, three triples and 18 RBI. Fife is batting .323 with seven doubles and 26 RBI. Crunkilton has a team-leading seven homers and 41 RBI and a .319 average.
The Cougars have banked on a number of freshman right-handers to lead the pitching staff. Chris Plitt (6-1) was eighth in the ACCAC with a 1.43 earned run average in 69 innings. One of those innings was against WNC on Feb 1, when Plitt surrendered one hit.
South Mountain also counts on Brandon Yslas, who was third in the conference with eight saves and has a 3.45 ERA. Cody Lawson leads the staff with seven wins in eight decisions and has a 3.74 ERA in 43 1/3 innings.
Harber, Christian Stolo and Spencer Greer consume most of the innings for the Wildcats of late. Greer is 7-4 with a 2.12 ERA, Harber has won all eight of his decisions and has a 2.23 ERA and Stolo has bounced back from a broken finger and has a 6-3 mark and 2.73 ERA.
In that season-opening series at South Mountain, Greer gave up five hits and five runs in three innings in an 8-5 first-game loss, where South Mountain built a 5-1 lead after three innings. Corey Pool homered for the Wildcats, while Scott Hoffman was the winning pitcher, giving up six hits and one run.
In game two, Stolo gave up six hits and four runs in five innings as the Wildcats lost, 6-3. Clay Miller one-hit the Wildcats over five innings to get the win. Crunkilton and Reynolds had doubles in the defeat.
The Wildcats avoided their first 0-3 start in program history with a 7-6 victory in game three. Harber pitched three innings, allowing one hit and one run, while Austin Andrews had two hits and three RBI. Connor Klein legged out a triple and Jake Bennett and Crunkilton hit two-baggers for the Wildcats.
South Mountain, ranked 24th, struggled late in the season, losing nine of 14 games in one stretch before pulling it together to win three straight games to win its regional.
Win or lose, the Wildcats will play either 26th-rated Trinidad State Junior College of Trinidad, Colo., (34-24) or Cochise College of Douglas, Ariz., (34-26) on Friday. The winnersâ€™ bracket game is scheduled for noon, while the opening-round losers meet at 9 a.m.
Wildcatsâ€™ play-by-play announcer Chris Graham will broadcast the games at USTREAM-Live WNC Broadcast