Heading into its inaugural season the Western Nevada Community College baseball team knew it would have to grow up quickly or else it would become what Wildcats third baseman Tyson Jaquez called "a doormat' for its Scenic West Athletic Conference rivals.
Bearing the brunt of that challenge was the pitching staff, including freshman Chad Riddle, a 2005 graduate of Sierra Vista High School, in Las Vegas.
But facing the adversity of being the new kid on the block is nothing new to the 19-year-old Riddle, who was a left fielder for the Mountain Lions, who won their first-ever state title in 2005.
"I've known how it feels ever since I was a freshman at (the newly established) Sierra Vista," Riddle said. "We were facing the big programs like Green Valley and Centennial, who were already established. We played hard and won (the state title)."
"UP AND DOWN"
Following his team's four-game sweep of Colorado Northwestern Community College on the road Feb. 24-25, the Wildcats had proven they weren't anybody's punching bag and were 11-9 overall and 5-3 in the SWAC.
With Dixie State on the horizon, Riddle - "a jack of all trades" according to WNCC coach D.J. Whittemore - had been through a few battles out of the bullpen and carried an earned run average of 10.24 through six appearances.
"He's had a up-and-down year," Whittemore said before WNCC faced Dixie State, in St. George, Utah. "He's had some strong outings and some poor outings."
With 9 2/3 innings under his belt, Riddle had given up 11 runs (all earned) and 16 hits, while walking four and striking out six. But more important than any statistic, he still had the confidence of his teammates and Whittemore.
"Chad's very calm on the mound," Jaquez said. "That's what you need. If something bad happens, you have to react well to it. If you keep it in your head, you'll have some bad pitches. Chad's very calm and collected on the mound. He's a great pitcher. He hits his spots well. He has a great changeup."
Whittemore said he wouldn't hesitate to insert the versatile Riddle at any point of a game.
"He's a long and short reliever - he'll close a game if he has to," said Whittemore, who went one step further. "I'm confident in him starting if we need him to do that. He throws a lot of strikes. He had a save in our season-opening win over CCSN (Community College of Southern Nevada) and two strong innings in Colorado."
And that was just the beginning of Riddle's success.
TURNING IT AROUND
WNCC showed its strong start was no fluke, splitting its four-game series on the road with Dixie State and then last weekend at Ron McNutt Field at Carson High School against Salt Lake Community College.
And just as the Wildcats (now 15-13, 9-7 SWAC) kept battling back against its more established opponents, so did the 19-year-old Riddle.
"I've gotten a lot better," Riddle said. "The coaching staff has taught me a lot. I can learn a lot here. I have a lot of confidence in the coaches. What they're doing is right."
Riddle (0-1) has seen his ERA drop to 4.77 in 10 appearances (second on the team). And in 14 2/3 innings pitched, he's walked six, struck out nine and picked up two saves (also second most on the team).
Success on the mound comes from making subtle changes. Whittemore's growing confidence in Riddle was expressed in his subtle couching of Riddle's job description following the series with the SLCC Bruins.
"Chad had his best (work) of the season last weekend (against SLCC)," Whittemore said. "Before that he picked up a big save against Dixie. He allowed us to save our bullpen. He does everything you ask him to do - long and short relief, set-up man, closer. This weekend (against the College of Eastern Utah), he'll potentially be our fourth starter."
Riddle's possible promotion to starter as well as his increased cache most likely stemmed from his performance during that series with SLCC, which has one of the most talented juco pitching staffs in the nation.
Riddle showed he and his fellow pitchers weren't chopped liver either, and he pitched two scoreless innings in a 2-0 loss to the Bruins in the teams' first meeting in last Friday's doubleheader. He also pitched 2/3 of hitless ball in finishing the second game of the twin bill (a 4-1 loss).
WNCC rebounded with a 2-1 win on Saturday and a 1-0 victory on Sunday.
"Our pitching staff is so deep and Chad just adds to it," Jaquez said. "We put our confidence in him when he steps on the rubber."
"His best pitch is his fastball," Whittemore said. "He has a very good changeup as well. His strength is his command and movement. He has good mound presence as well. He has good composure."
GOING TO TOWN
And it's always a plus when you have a player on your team who doesn't mind putting his nose to the grindstone.
"His work ethic is outstanding. Chad's well known for his work ethic on the team," Whittemore said. "He won't cut corners. He'll do extra. He'll always give 100 percent - all day, every day. At times, he's vocal in terms of questioning other players and coaches. He's a real good student and has one of the highest-quality characters on the team."
You also won't find Riddle on top of an orange crate in the middle of town crowing about his skills.
"I don't like to talk about myself much," he said. "I'm a humble person. I like to go out and play. That's how I talk about myself."
Riddle is now getting his core classes out of the way for what he hopes will eventually turn into an engineering degree, but for now he's centered on constructing a future at a Division I school someday.
"I received a lot of letters from schools - just stuff like 'Write us back,'" Riddle said of the interest he received as a high school player. "There were some scouts from the Reds and Cardinals, but they didn't really talk. They just watched me.
"The reason I came here is because I got letters from D-I schools like Florida and LSU coming to me. They know who I am, so if I can get better, they can track me down again and maybe I can go to one of those schools in a couple of years."
In the meantime Riddle said he and his teammates are hoping to keep putting into practice a lesson he learned on an up-an-coming high school at Sierra Vista.
"I think this team has a good chance of beating anyone - anyone," Riddle said with emphasis. "In baseball, anyone can win on a given day. If you compete really hard, you have a chance to beat anybody."
Note: WNCC will play a pair of doubleheaders March 24-25 against the College of Eastern Utah, in Price, Utah, before traveling to Twin Falls, Idaho, for a four-game series with the College of Southern Idaho, March 31-April 1.
The Wildcats will play their first series at the newly constructed John L. Harvey Field on April 7-8, when they host Dixie State for a pair of doubleheaders.