It's just about baseball season at Western Nevada College, and that usually means there is snow on the ground.
The Wildcats have been preparing for the 2013 campaign, where eighth-year coach D.J. Whittemore will be challenged to bring along a young roster and a largely new coaching staff, in winter conditions.
"Preparing for a baseball season where we play more than half the games during winter is excruciating," Whittemore said. "It limits what we can do, and takes time and energy away from focusing on the important parts of getting ready."
But those obstacles have not prevented WNC from winning on the diamond. The Wildcats have averaged nearly 47 wins per season over the past four years, and in its seven year history, WNC has never finished with fewer than 17 wins over the .500 mark, and grabbed at least a Scenic West Conference title, Western District championship, Region 18 title, or finished as the region's runner-up.
"We expect to be respectful, be great teammates, be great competitors and demand excellence on and off the field. And we expect to get better faster than any team in the country," Whittemore said.
Two-thirds of this year's players are freshmen, including 10 of the team's 15 pitchers. But a history of retooling the Wildcats' roster is on Whittemore's side. The program's has three JUCO World Series appearances in seven seasons, and National Junior College Athletic Association academic team honors in six of those years.
"We lost a lot of great players - our top seven pitchers by innings and eight of our top 11 hitters by at-bats," Whittemore said. "It is going to be a long and difficult road, and sometimes, I am sure, we are going to question whether we are ever going to see the light, but I am confident that 2013 will prove to be another championship season when it is all said and done."
Last year, Wildcat pitchers compiled a 2.46 staff earned run average, including three starters with ERAs under 2.00, en route to the school's third trip to the JUCO World Series in the past six years. But fifth-round MLB draft pick Dylan Baker (No. 173 overall), Andrew Woeck (North Carolina State), Brandon Jackson (Oregon State), Derrick Pitts (Lee University), Anthony Consiglio (New Mexico) and Matt Robertson (Campbellsville) have moved on to their next pitching destinations. That leaves Whittemore and former Wildcat/ new pitching coach Josh Moody to groom a staff with very little junior college experience.
Moody, who replaces Jeremy Beard, brings familiarity and high-level experience to the program that spring-boarded his pitching career. He was a hurler for the WNC club that finished third at the 2009 JUCO World Series, and then was a member of Arizona State University's 2010 College World Series team. Moody also won a game at the 2009 JUCO World Series and was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2008.
"Josh is doing an outstanding job nurturing a young pitching staff," Whittemore said.
Of the returning pitching corps, right-hander Philip Belding has seen the most work out of the Wildcats' bullpen. Belding pitched 32 innings, accumulating a 2-1 record and 3.09 ERA in 12 appearances.
Other returning hurlers are lefty Austin Richmond (2.70 ERA and 23 1/3 innings), right-hander Brandon Show (4.05 ERA, 13 appearances), right-hander Evan Parker (2.79 ERA in nine appearances) and right-handed position player Rayne Raven (2.35 ERA).
"Having all those pitchers coming back is really going to be nice," said returning catcher Cole Ferguson. "They saw a lot of innings last year, and they are doing a good job leading the younger pitchers and sharing their knowledge."
Based on his offseason work, Show likely has secured one of top rotation spots. With a better than one strikeout per inning ratio last year, he is projected to continue his power pitching trend this season. In the offseason, he increased the velocity on the fastball to 94 mph and slider to 82 mph, according to Whittemore.
"Brandon has been patient, worked very hard and done everything we've asked," he said. "He went out this summer and put a great effort into getting better and got tremendous results. He has the makings of a dominant Scenic West Conference pitcher."
Show has already signed to pitch at the University of San Diego in 2014.
The remaining 10 arms on the pitching staff are freshmen, including three left-handers, and will be responsible for elevating the overall team performance as the season goes along. "They are just trying to do a lot of the same things we did last year and share that," Ferguson said. "They know that for us to contend, they will have to pitch really well this year. We have a pretty good offensive conference this year."
As inexperienced as the Wildcats are on the mound, they can counter that youth with some firepower and experience at many of the position slots. Infielder AJ Hernandez, outfielder Donald Glover Jr. and infielder Mike Umscheid are WNC's top returning hitters. Each hit better than.330 last year, led by Hernandez and Glover at .333 and Umscheid at .331.
Glover played in only eight games a year ago and was redshirted due to injury, so he is back in an attempt to get in his second season with the Wildcats.
The 6-foot-3 Umscheid started 47 games for the Wildcats in 2012 and demonstrated an ability to man multiple positions, fielding the corner infield spots, as well as left and right field. His .331 batting average was fourth on the club. He finished fourth in stolen bases with eight, fourth in putouts with 130, and first with four triples.
That production and upside swayed Kansas State University to sign Umscheid for next season.
"He's a complete player who really takes pride in his work habits," Whittemore said. "He's a great student, very coachable and a great leader. He's a Wildcat to the core."
Whittemore also welcomes back Ferguson, who hit .313 with seven doubles in 23 starts in 2012, and infielder Raven, who produced a .314 batting average along with two triples, five doubles and 33 RBI.
Besides Moody, Whittemore also welcomes new outfielder/base-running coach Logan Parsley and infield/third-base coach Garrett Yrigoyen. Hitting coach Aaron Demosthenes remains as a key assistant, having been with Whittemore since the program began in 2006.
"One of the most difficult aspects of coaching junior college baseball is a lack of paid assistant coaches. This makes it very difficult to keep talented coaches on staff for very long," Whittemore said. "We have had two amazing pitching coaches over the last seven years that both had to move on in order to support their families. Luckily, our program has maintained coach Demosthenes as our hitting coach and assistant head coach for the entire seven-plus years our program has existed. He is the backbone of the coaching staff and someone who has made a huge impact on the players' lives and been an outstanding mentor to young men."
Parsley is a former Carson High player who is among WNC's all-time leaders in stolen bases. Yrigoyen started for three seasons at the University of Nevada, playing third base and shortstop, and was a three-time Western Athletic Conference all-academic team member.
WNC will open the season Friday, Jan. 25, at the South Mountain tournament in Las Vegas, and will spend the first three weeks squaring off against warm-weather teams.
"We schedule our first 16 games of the season against teams that are from Arizona and Southern California that, on top of being very talented, also have the ability to properly prepare for a season that starts January 25th," Whittemore said.
New this season is a preseason round-robin tournament for all five SWAC teams February 21-23 in Henderson. WNC will play defending conference champion Salt Lake, and Colorado Northwestern on February 22, then match up against and Southern Idaho and Southern Nevada on February 23.
The Wildcats begin conference play March 1-2 at Salt Lake and meet Colorado Northwestern to open their home schedule on March 8-9 at John L. Harvey Field in Carson City.