Work ethic, determination, commitment and effort are just some of the qualities that contribute to the Western Nevada College baseball team’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.
“It’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,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore. “We 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 today.
The timing and the logistics of the Western District Tournament didn’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.
“Some guys didn’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,” Whittemore said.
The team was on the bus for eight hours on Tuesday and six more hours on Wednesday.
“Anybody with aspirations of playing pro baseball should get used to this schedule,” Whittemore said.
Last year’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.
“In 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,” 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.
“They handled us,” Whittemore said. “They scored a bunch of runs on our pitching staff, and they kept our offense down. “They have a good combination of power, table setters and RBI guys, and they have some frontline pitching as well.
“We’ll have to play our best game of the year to win.”
Sophomore outfielders Justin Behnke and Chris Akmon, first-team all-region selections, make the Cougars’ 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 Cougars’ lineup, Behnke also knocked in 32 runs and scored 60 times.
Driving in runs has been Akmon’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 Wildcats’ 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.
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 winners’ bracket game is scheduled for noon, while the opening-round losers meet at 9 a.m.