It will be a youthful Western Nevada College baseball team that takes the field this spring at John L. Harvey Field. With a roster that is 70 percent freshmen, the Wildcats will enter the 2015 season without the experience that has fostered regular success in the past. The two-time defending Region 18 champions open their season on Jan. 30 against last seasonâ€™s nemesis, South Mountain College of Arizona, which ended the Wildcatsâ€™ season only a few wins shy of another trip to the Junior College World Series.
For the first time in nine years, the Wildcats enter the season without a national ranking. â€œWe will be the underdog all year because we will be gaining experience as we go rather than relying on experience to carry us,â€ said Coach DJ Whittemore. To continue its streak of 40-win seasons and postseason success, the inconsistencies that plagued the young roster during the fall season must eventually disappear.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t change anything for us,â€ Whittemore said. â€œWe still expect to get everyoneâ€™s best game. We still expect to get better faster than any team in the country. We still expect to win the next game we play. We expect to play smart, play hard and play together. This year, I am sure, is going to have some big bumps along the way, and as long as we stay together, continue to work, believe and focus on the big picture, we will arrive at the end of the season with a chance to win any tournament we enter.â€
Sophomore pitcher Max Karnos and sophomore outfielder Jake Bennett lead a Wildcat program that has won 40 or more games in the previous six seasons and has advanced to the Western District Tournament the last three years.
Karnos, the only returning member of the starting rotation, posted a 5-2 record and 3.91 earned run average last season.
â€œHis mound presence and demeanor are a great example to the young pitchers on our staff,â€ Whittemore said.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander, who committed to Sacramento State University in November, is looking forward to leading a staff that includes 12 freshmen.
â€œI really learned a lot last year, and it will help me show all of these guys how we do it at Western Nevada. They are a really, really talented freshman class, so I donâ€™t think it will be hard for them to get used to it,â€™ Karnos said.
The Wildcatsâ€™ pitching staff received a boost when former Elko High School star Cody Kerns transferred in from Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. Kerns earned honorable mention from the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference in 2014 and threw against NJCAA Division II champion Mesa in the World Series.
Kerns struck out 107 hitters in 84 2/3 innings and allowed 3.40 earned runs per nine innings.
The pitching staff also welcomes back Thomas Kerr and Connor Zwetsch.
â€œStarting pitching is the key for every team, always,â€ Whittemore said. â€œIf 2015 turns out to be a successful, even a championship season, it will be because our starting pitching was somewhere better than good.â€
Zwetsch was 3-0 with a 4.31 ERA in 16 appearances in 2014. He delivered one of the Wildcatsâ€™ most crucial performances of the season when he threw seven innings of relief and picked up the win in WNCâ€™s 8-2 victory over Trinidad State of Trinidad, Colo., in a district tournament elimination game.
Kerr was fifth on the team with a 3.52 ERA over 23 innings and won two of his three decisions.
Whittemore said that Zwetsch and sophomore infielder Kody Reynolds made the most progress in the fall among players who were with the team last season.
â€œReynolds has made the move to shortstop and was also the teamâ€™s best hitter over the 20 games this fall,â€ Whittemore said. â€œZwetsch was the No. 1 pitcher in the fall until a foot injury put him on the shelf. All of the sophomores look to be more confident and ready to pull a bigger load this go-around.â€
Last season, Reynolds, a Reno product who manned third base in most of his 31 starts, hit .289 with eight doubles, two homers and two triples.
The Wildcatsâ€™ roster also includes two players who were drafted last June: right-handed pitcher Johny Meszaros of Anchorage, Alaska, and power-hitting outfielder DJ Peters of Glendora, Calif. The 6-foot-6 Peters was taken in the 36th round by the Cubs, while the 6-2 Meszaros was selected in the 39th round by the Rays.
In 2013 at Glendora High, Peters hit .403 with a .515 on-base average. He also slugged six homers and two triples, and knocked in 24 runs. As a senior, Peters hit .349 with 20 RBI, 11 doubles and four homers.
Meszaros struck out 17 and allowed just one hit in one of his most dominant outings for Service High School. He finished his senior campaign with a 7-1 record and all-conference recognition.
Interestingly, Meszarosâ€™ Service team lost to Karnosâ€™ South squad, 15-1, in the 2013 Alaska state title game.
Bennett is the Wildcatsâ€™ top returning hitter. Last season, he was third on the team with a .324 batting average. The outfielder also produced some of the clubâ€™s better power numbers a year ago, hitting 11 doubles and five home runs.
He was chosen to the All-Region 18 second team and is the only WNC returner with such a distinction.
During the summer, Bennett played in the Prospect League in the Midwest, sharing the league hitting honors with a .342 average and starting in the leagueâ€™s All-Star game.
Whittemore said that Bennett, Reynolds, freshman infielder David Modler and freshman catcher Tim Lichty excelled in getting on base in the fall.
â€œThose guys had an exceptional fall,â€ Whittemore said. â€œIf we have a strength, it would be the top of the lineup.â€
Other position players back from last yearâ€™s team are infielder Austin Andrews, outfielder Corey Pool and catcher Brandon Lapointe.
Andrews, a middle infielder, batted .231 with 13 RBI last season, while Pool hit .239 with three home runs. Lapointe, the only returning receiver among five catchers on the roster, made the most of his starts last year, hitting .278 with a .472 slugging average.
Lichty, a freshman from Galena High School in Reno, also figures to see time behind the plate. Lichty and Lapointe captained the Wildcat teams during the annual intra-squad Player World Series in October.
Playersâ€™ power numbers take a hit in the SWAC wooden bat league, but that doesnâ€™t mean the Wildcats wonâ€™t look to improve upon their 31 homers from a year ago.
â€œPotential and power are two words that would be more easily found in Narnia than a JC baseball field,â€ Whittemore said. â€œWhen you combine dominant Scenic West pitchers with 19-year-olds swinging wood bats and half the season in the winter, you don’t get great power numbers. We have a large group of position players who have worked hard in the weight room and have an excellent hitting coach (Aaron Demosthenes) with a proven track record, so I am hopeful we can improve on those numbers from the past two years, but we are going to rely on the old standbys of pitching and defense to win most games.â€
With SWAC opponents returning more players than the Wildcats, Whittemore said that his programâ€™s trademark qualities of hard work and discipline will be necessary to succeed.
â€œThe SWAC is top-to bottom stronger relative to our team this season than any year since our first in 2006,â€ Whittemore said. â€œOur focus, like in years past, will be to get better faster throughout the year so that when the last month rolls around, we are playing our best baseball. In the past, we have had players who put the heart and soul into everything they did, and it has always worked out in the past.â€
Whittemore said that College of Southern Idaho has assembled one of the top pitching staffs in the country, College Northwestern should have its best team to date, and last yearâ€™s regional finalist Salt Lake returns nearly 20 players. College of Southern Nevada, however, has the makings of possibly the nationâ€™s top team, Whittemore said.
The Coyotes were ranked second behind Iowa Western in Collegiate Baseball Newspaperâ€™s NJCAA Division I Preseason Poll.
â€œCSN has all-conference players returning at 2B, OF and on the mound. They brought in the best JC player (2013 first-round pick Phil Bickford) since Bryce Harper, not to mention 18 second-year players, and a great recruiting class of the top freshmen in Las Vegas. Sprinkle in three or four D1 kickbacks and you have the makings of what might turn out to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country,â€ Whittemore said.
â€œWe are just fortunate that all five teams qualify for the postseason.â€
While the fall season was challenging for the young WNC team, Whittemore said that he respects the effort of his players to get better.
â€œOur 2015 team to this point is working as hard as any team in the past,â€ Whittemore said. â€œThey are listening well and getting along off the field and in the dugout. In years past, even when we haven’t always had the most talented teams, these have been traits that produce champions.â€