With the possible exception of the players themselves, nobody expected the first-year Western Nevada Community College Wildcats baseball team to be challenging for first place this season.
But with the team's pair of doubleheaders with first-place Dixie State College of Utah beginning Friday, WNCC (18-6 in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, 24-12 overall) has turned itself from an underdog into a contender.
Part of the reason for the Wildcats' transformation has been the play of left fielder Pat Grennan, who knows a thing or two about turning things around.
Although he and WNCC teammates Chad Riddle and Tom Miller were all part of the same 2005 state champion Sierra Vista High School baseball team, in Las Vegas, Grennan was beginning to wonder whether he was going to be able to pursue his dream of playing at the college level.
"I didn't know if there was going to be an offer (to play) before I got the offer up here," said the 19-year-old freshman, whose only other dialogue had been with Taft Junior College, in California.
Wildcats head coach D.J. Whittemore said there was a good reason for Grennan's doubts.
"Pat was a late bloomer in high school," Whittemore said. "In his senior year, his coaching staff didn't expect him to do what he was doing. He batted (designated hitter) in high school. That turned me off a little. He didn't have a position in high school. I was wondering if he wasn't good enough for a position in high school, how would he be good enough to have a position in college."
Grennan has a simple explanation why he didn't have a defensive position.
"I was at DH because there was a better outfielder who played in front of me: Chad Riddle. I played left when he pitched," Grennan said.
But Grennan knew from experience that he had one big ace in the hole.
"I always had a pretty good bat," he said. "It kept me in the lineup. From the time I was 4 years old - through tee ball, Little League, Pony ball - it kept me in the game most of the time."
Have bat, will travel.
"He's what we call a 'free swinger' in baseball circles," Whittemore said. "A pitcher doesn't serve him too many pitches he doesn't want to hit."
Grennan, who bats in the No. 3 spot for the Wildcats, is batting .264 (fourth on the team) and is tied for second with Kyle Bondurant for second most RBI, with 15.
He's also coming off a 13-game hitting streak, which was snapped against College of Southern Idaho last Saturday.
"I was just joking with him the other day," said WNCC batting coach Aaron Demosthenes. "I said, 'I bet you don't even know you have (a then) 11-game hitting streak.' He said, 'Shoot, Coach, I'll forget about it by tomorrow.'"
"I'm not a stat guy," Grennan said. "I didn't know about it until the game was done. Coach (Demosthenes) told me about it. A hitting streak is nice. It's a good thing. But it's not something I worry about. You always want to get a hit no matter what."
Truth is, not much worries Grennan. Take his nicknames for example.
"They (his teammates) call me 'Banana,'" he said. "I'm Japanese-Caucasian - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They also call me 'Yao,' like (Houston Rockets center) Yao Ming. My outfield coach in high school called me that. I was the only Asian guy on the team. I'm fine with it. Anytime someone says, 'Yao,' I say, 'Yeah. What?' My mom calls me that now."
Grennan also refers to himself as Yao on his cell phone greeting.
"Pat's funny. He goes with the punches," said Miller, WNCC's first baseman, Grennan's friend and fellow biology major. "If you crack a joke, he'll laugh with you. He's not quick to get (upset) with something like 'Banana' or 'Yao.' I've never seen him mad. He's a mellow dude. I've never seen him out of control."
And as Whittemore said, "He has a lot of friends on the team because he treats people well. He leads by example."
Grennan also possesses other attributes - all of which played a part in changing Whittemore's initial reservations about recruiting him.
"He kept hitting, hitting, hitting (in his senior year) and we got some good recommendations from our scouts in Las Vegas," Whittemore said. "His work ethic is off the charts. He's a good student. All of those things worked in his favor and we decided that we needed him up here.
"This year he's had a great fall and has proved to be one of our best hitters. As the year's progressed, he's gotten better and better. That 13-game hitting streak - that's in seven-inning ballgames with a wood bat. Sometimes you only get three at-bats. He's increased his power tremendously."
Miller said one reason for Grennan's improvement comes from within.
"Ask anybody in the world, Pat's not happy with his average," Miller said. "He strives to be better. He'll be working till he dies on getting better. Like people found out in Las Vegas and up here, he can smash it (the ball) a bit. He's hitting everything in sight. He swings on the first pitch he can read. He's hitting tons of baseballs hard."
Grennan has also benefited from working with Demosthenes, whom he said the team calls "Demo" because they don't like trying to say his name.
"With him working with me on the inside pitch and keeping my ability to hit the outside pitch, I'm able to hit the ball well to both sides of the field," said Grennan, who added that he doesn't think he's arrived yet. "I'm only hitting .250 (.264, actually). I have a long ways to go. I have to be a bit more consistent. I'm hitting the ball for power more.
"Coach (Whittemore) has me in the 3-hole. It's more of a power spot than putting the ball down the right side of the line sort of thing. My whole high school career I hit it to the right side. Now I'm more of a power hitter - or at least I'm trying to be."
Grennan has also made great strides in the outfield. Although he has only an .865 fielding percentage, he has the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
"He's mainly improved every single part of his game," Miller said. "He's a hundred times better in the outfield now than when he was in high school. Now he's playing in the best juco conference in the nation. He's gone from a guy who struggled in the outfield in high school to a college outfielder."
"He's a very good outfielder," Whittemore said. "He has a good jump and runs balls down. He's an above average outfielder. He's quiet on the baseball field, but he's definitely one of the two or three hardest workers on the team. Every day in practice we can count on him to give outstanding effort."
Fo r Grennan, it's all about the team - on and off the field.
"I like hanging out with guys - we'll go out and eat sushi every once in a while," he said. "I'd describe myself as the best team player I can be, basically. I work hard to make me and my team better."
Grennan, who describes his musical tastes as country and rock 'n' roll, said his favorite song is "What Hurts the Most," by Rascal Flatts.
"It calms me down. I listen to it before every game," he said. "I have my iPod on my head, my headphones, before every game."
Grennan said he hopes to become a veterinarian ("I've always loved animals,") he said. ("I want to help them out.") and play in the World Series - the College World Series, in Omaha, Neb., that is.
"As a hitter, he's definitely a D-I hitter," Demosthenes said. "He definitely has to get a little better with his arm strength (in the outfield). That's all he's lacking to be a D-I player. With his work ethic, there's not going to be much to hold him back from achieving his goals. Our goal as a coaching staff is in helping to do that."
Go ahead and call Grennan an underdog. In fact, call the Wildcats underdogs. The fact of the matter is he and the team will be gunning to knock off Dixie State for first place in the SWAC at 1 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday at Ron McNutt Field at Carson High School.
"I don't see a reason why can't win three or more games - especially at home," Grennan said.
And why not? Not many people expected Grennan or the Wildcats to be where they are now anyway.
WNCC split its series (2-2) with Dixie State, in St. George, Utah.