They have come from as far as 5,341 miles away to play for the Western Nevada College baseball team in 2016, the final year of the program.
WNC coach D.J. Whittemore’s roster includes players from Wilrijk, Belgium; Kingsport, Tenn.; Seattle, Wash.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Park City, Utah; and Glendora, Calif.
Despite their varied baseball backgrounds and geographical differences, this group of Wildcats share a number of common objectives: Win the Scenic West Athletic Conference, reclaim the Region 18 title, capture the Western District title and secure the program’s fourth berth to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series in May. How quickly Whittemore’s 14 sophomores and 11 freshmen gel and embrace their roles will determine the team’s success.
“When you spend 10 hours a day on the weekend at the field together and over 100 hours on the bus together, getting along becomes very important,” Whittemore said. “The chemistry to this point in the season has been excellent. It’s hard not to get along in the fall because there isn’t anything at stake and everyone plays an equal amount. Chemistry is tested for two reasons in the spring: competition for playing time and pointing the finger after losses or wanting credit after wins.”
Throughout his 11-year tenure coaching the Wildcats, Whittemore’s teams have separated themselves on the mound. With four pitchers returning with starting backgrounds and two more with relief experience, that trend shouldn’t change this spring. Although WNC lost one of the most consistent arms in program history in Max Karnos (Sacramento State) and dynamic closer Connor Zwetsch (Oregon), Whittemore can lean on a veteran pitching staff to position the Wildcats for another successful run.
“Our pitching staff will always be the key to the season,” Whittemore said. “Last season as a group, we failed to command the baseball well enough to keep runners off base at the necessary rate to win the close games against the top teams. In the Scenic West and probably any other conference in the country, you either have the best pitching staff or you don’t have the best team. The nice thing about having six returners is that we have some experience: the six returners combined to win 19 games but also lost 12.”
Sophomore left-hander Matt Young anchors the pitching staff. Young led the Wildcats with an 8-4 record in 2015 and finished third with a 2.59 earned run average. The southpaw made it difficult on opposing hitters, holding them to a .188 batting average.
“I have really high goals,” Young said. “I definitely tapered off at the end of last season. I didn’t recover properly, so this season I’ve been working a lot more on becoming bigger and stronger.”
Ty Fox, a sophomore right-hander, blossomed at the end of his freshman season. Fox won six of eight decisions and finished with a 3.82 ERA.
Josh Mill and Chase Kaplan also toed the rubber as starters in 2015. Kaplan, a left-hander, was 3-4 in 11 starts with a 4.39 ERA. The right-handed Mill posted a 0-2 mark and 4.50 ERA, making five starts after recovering from a lower-back injury.
The Wildcats also welcome back relievers Kyle Thompson and DJ Peters. They appeared in 11 games last season, combining to win two games against no losses.
Like they have in the past, Wildcat pitchers are attracting interest from higher levels of college baseball. Young and Mill signed letters of intent in November. Young will return home to Reno and play for his hometown Nevada Wolf Pack, while Mill has agreed to play for Cal State Northridge.
Newcomers Jordan Dreibelbis, Jordy Van den Heuvel and Jordan Ragan are also competing for prominent roles on the mound.
Dreibelbis, a 6-4 right-handed sophomore who pitched for Dixie State University last season, made an instant impression for the Wildcats. He tossed a four-hitter to earn the Game 1 victory in the Wildcat Player World Series in October. Dreibelbis made 12 appearances for Dixie State in 2015, dropping his only decision.
Van den Heuvel, a 6-2 lefty, established himself as one of the top amateur pitching prospects in Europe. He participated in the 2012 European Cup and received an invitation to the 10th Major League Baseball Elite Camp in Italy.
Ragan, another in a long line of talented players from Medford, Ore., to play for Whittemore, helped pitch North Medford to the Oregon 6A title in 2014. Last summer, the 6-2 left-hander pitched the Medford Mustangs to a 3-2 victory over defending American Legion World Series champion Brooklawn, N.J., and his Medford team went on to make the semifinals. Ragan finished the summer season with an 8-1 record.
“The bottom line is that we have a bunch of guys who are hungry to prove that they can do it at this level,” Whittemore said. “I think from a talent perspective we have what it takes to develop into a competitive region championship-caliber pitching staff; the question still remains to be answered is whether or not they are willing to make the adjustments and put in the level of commitment and work necessary to see those adjustments through. We left lots of room for improvement after the fall.”
Offensively, the Wildcats took a hit with the graduation of SWAC Player of the Year Jake Bennett (Oregon) and power hitters Kody Reynolds (Sacramento State) and Corey Pool (UNLV).
“We lost three of the best hitters in the league, possibly the three best hitters in the league,” Whittemore said. “Bennett was the player of the year and Reynolds and Pool were both unanimous first-team selections. Our lineup will be hard-pressed to replace the power those three offered. Just from a physical-presence standpoint alone, it will be hard replace them, not to mention the confidence and consistency they offered us.”
The Wildcats, however, welcome back two-time Major League Baseball draftee Peters, who made the Region 18 first team as a freshman. The outfielder hit .346, second only to Bennett, and stroked seven homers, 11 doubles and four triples. Peters signed with four-time national champion Cal State Fullerton for the second time during the early signing period in November.
“It’s good to sign in November during the early signing period because you have all winter and all spring to focus on school, the season, the team, working out and what you need to do,” Peters said. “I’m glad to have it out of the way because I know where I’m going, no matter what. I love it here and I’m excited for the season.”
catcher Tim Lichty, infielder Brogan Secrist, outfielder Bradley Lewis, second baseman David Modler, infielder Riley Ingram and catcher Blake Morin provide starting experience as well. But the loss of power should change the way the Wildcats attack offensively.
“We will have to be a different type of team offensively — more geared to scoring every chance we can through productive outs at times and perhaps use of the bunt and stolen base a little more frequently,” Whittemore said.
As a freshman, the versatile Lichty served as a catcher, first baseman and designated hitter and provided power with his bat, contributing 16 extra-base hits. He delivered one of last season’s biggest hits — a game-winning homer to end a two-day 13-inning marathon against Salt Lake. He also knocked in 33 runs and had a .393 on-base average.
Modler was in the starting lineup 48 times and provided a team-leading 37 walks. He batted .231 and was second on the team with 41 runs scored.
Ingram was a part-time starter in 2015, but his small sample size demonstrated an ability to hit consistently. He hit .300 in 30 at-bats.
Secrist, an outfielder and infielder, played errorless defense to go along with his .256 batting average a year ago, giving Whittemore some flexibility with his defensive alignment.
Lewis, who delivered one of the Wildcats’ two walk-off hits in 2015, cracked eight doubles and four triples while serving as an outfielder.
As a freshman catcher, Morin gave Whittemore a left-handed hitting option. Morin started 19 games, connecting for 10 hits and seven RBI.
Based on their fall performances, four freshmen figure to help the Wildcats offensively. Third baseman Chad Bell demonstrated a power stroke and a high on-base percentage, shortstop Casey Cornwell consistently delivered with runners on base, outfielder Chandler Barkdull positioned himself to lead off if he can overcome several offseason injuries and first baseman Daniel Nist provided the team with another slugging option. Catcher Sam Salyers, a sophomore transfer from Kingsport, Tenn., and middle infielder Justin Mannens, a freshman transfer from Lewis and Clark State who played for Spanish Spring High School in Sparks, are also in the mix for playing time.
The Wildcats haven’t captured the SWAC regular-season title since Whittemore’s 2011 club overpowered the conference in winning 37 of 40 games. With experienced pitching and a solid fall season, returning the SWAC title to Carson City isn’t out of the question.
“Salt Lake and Southern Nevada have shared the last four conference championships,” Whittemore said. “We have to elevate our game and get back into the picture. It’s always hard to predict how your team will compete in the spring. We have been pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion with how hard our guys are willing to work at preparing to win. We have been pleasantly surprised in the past by how fast our guys have learned to play smart. Last year, as frustrating as it was to finish the season without our fourth consecutive berth in the Western District tournament, I have to honestly say our guys grinded every pitch, every game, every weekend about as well as I have ever seen anyone do it.
“This season, we will get what we earn. Every one of the programs goals is certainly within reach. If we have what it takes in our hearts and minds, then talent isn’t going to be what holds us back.”