Between games Saturday afternoon, Western Nevada assistant coach Dennis Banks gave a farewell to the 11 exiting sophomores on the baseball team, who were playing their final regular season home game. In his speech he deemed this group of Wildcats perhaps the best class ever.
After flowers, baseballs and hugs were exchanged between players, their family and the coaching staff, they then had the chance to prove themselves. Eight of the nine players that took the field were sophomores, with Daniel Zylstra being the exception. For five innings the group that has seen little if any time on the field together looked as if they may complete the four-game sweep against Salt Lake as they took an early two-run lead. But the elders gave way to a few of the younger players in a tied seventh inning to grab a 5-4 win at John L. Harvey Field.
"Those guys have earned that opportunity to start in the their last game on this field," WNC coach D.J. Whittemore said. "I've got confidence in every one of these guys, one through 25."
The 13th-ranked Wildcats (34-6 SWAC, 38-12) won the first game 6-0 and took a two game lead in the Scenic West Athletic Conference over Southern Nevada (30-8, 38-16). The Coyotes had their eight game win streak snapped by Eastern Utah, who took one game of their four-game series in a 4-1 victory.
The Wildcats need to win two of four games against next week's opponent, Colorado Northwestern (3-31, 7-41), to clinch the conference title.
There was nothing ordinary about the Wildcats' lineup in the second game. Brian Barnett, WNC's normal three-hitter, led off, while light-hitting Mike Long batted cleanup. Travis Feiner moved from third to second, seldom used Brett Moravec started at third and relief pitcher Logan Odom was the designated hitter.
Whittemore was on his way to looking like a genius for the move with his team up 4-1 going into the sixth. But WNC catcher Jerome Pena committed two throwing errors and JR Roland launched a three-run homer off of WNC starting pitcher Kyle Starratt, also a sophomore, to right field for the game-tying runs 4-4.
Starratt came back in the seventh where he picked off Brandon Keller at first with a surprise move and struck out the other two batters.
Eric Maupin drove in the game-winning run in the eighth on shallow fly to right that if it weren't for a tremendous play by Ryan Bernal would have been a hit. Instead it went down as a sac-fly with Mike Stiles scoring the winning run.
Whittemore told all of his sophomores that they would see time in the game no matter what and he proved he meant it when he ran over from the first base coach's box in the eighth inning to tell relief pitcher Javy Perez to get ready. Perez grabbed his glove and ran down to the bullpen to warmup for the save opportunity. The only problem was Whittemore wanted him to bat.
He got the most out of his only at bat of his career, taking the count full before hitting a fly to right.
"Javy is a competitor and I said, 'Do you want this?'" Whittemore said. "He said, 'Yeah, I do.' He assumed he was closing the game, and I love that. Shoot, he told me when he got to first base, 'I want to close this thing out,' and I said, 'Yeah, you and about 10 other guys.'"
Kramer Champlin (7-1) pitched the eighth and ninth for the win.
The Wildcats cruised through the first game with Jordan Lewis (8-2) on the mound. The sophomore, who suffered from a sore pitching arm last week, didn't show any signs of fatigue as he struck out six batters on a two-hit, complete-game performance.
"I felt really good out there today," Lewis said. "Coming back from last weekend with a sore shoulder, this week I'm feeling good. I just wanted to come here and do the best that I can."