Biggest season for Wildcats opens door for more
On Monday, Western Nevada baseball coach D.J. Whittemore told onlookers a story another baseball coach told him earlier this season about when the coach had to pull the team bus over after winning the California state junior college tournament to tell his players that there would be no parade when they got home, that there would be no barbecue and there would be no celebration. All that awaited his players, was an empty parking lot.
When the Western Nevada Wildcats made their first public appearance since finishing third at the JUCO World Series on Monday, there wasn’t a parade nor an empty parking lot waiting for them. The Wildcats were met warmly by nearly 75 parents, alumni, fans and even Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell for a welcome back barbecue to celebrate their best season in the program’s four-year history.
“They’re the best team that I’ve ever coached,” Whittemore said. “This group of sophomores in particular was very exceptional in all three phases as people, students and players.”
The Wildcats fell 11-3 to eventual champ Howard College on Thursday, who finished with the best record ever recorded in any level of collegiate baseball at 63-1, in the World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
The sophomore class ” 11 of them ” leave the program as the winningest class with an 83-33 record. They also topped the Wildcats’ previous World Series top finish of fifth, which they reached in 2007.
Of the 11 sophomores seven have signed with Division I universities and as many as four of them could be drafted in Major League Baseball amateur draft on June 9-10.
The players leaving the program are Lance Ray (Kentucky), Brian Barnett (Nevada), Josh Moody (Arizona State), Logan Odom (USC), Jerome Pena (TCU), Kyle Starratt (TCU), Travis Feiner (UNLV), Marshall Kennebrew (Point Loma Nazarene), Mike Long, Brett Moravec and Javy Perez.
There weren’t too many people who thought early on that the Wildcats would be this good of team. They started the season 2-6 and looked like they didn’t deserve the No. 18 ranking they received in the National Junior College Athletics Association preseason poll. But as quickly as things looked bad for the team, it was able to turn things around. WNC won six straight after the torrid start and would only lose back to back games two more times during the season.
The reason for the turnaround, players said, was because the early season struggles helped bring the team together that winning may not have done so easily.
“(This team is) number one by far,” Pena said about where the team ranked among all the teams he has played for. “I’ve never had a team like this before. Just talking about it right now is emotional because I’m going to miss just everybody that I’ve built a relationship with the past few years. There’s 10 other guys that are sophomores that (I have) really close relationships with. This is the best team by far. I don’t think anything is ever going to match this, ever.”
WNC swept its way through the Region XVIII and Western District tournaments before falling to Howard 4-3 in the first game of the series.
Even though the Wildcats lost to Howard two times in the double-elimination tourney, they did manage to open some eyes. They were the only team in the series to come from a wood-bat league and didn’t have the offensive numbers that any of the other teams had. Western Nevada didn’t have one player hold better than a .400 batting average; Lance Ray led the team with a .374. Howard, on the other hand, had all but three players on its entire roster hitting better than .400 with aluminum bats.
“We definitely were the underdogs since we came in (to the series),” said WNC pitch Kramer Champlin, who was predominantly the closer this season but could be thrusted into the starting rotation next season. “Experience is everything for all those players that are freshman. That will definitely help for next year too.”
While this year’s squad goes out as the most successful, there is another crop of Wildcats waiting to eclipse that mark. WNC returns 14 players, with eight of those being players who either started or saw significant time this season. Additionally, there are 15 players who have signed letters of intent to play at WNC next season, several more who have verbaled and the Wildcats will hold an open tryout Thursday.
“I thought about that after the game we lost, that it is the last time I was going to play on the field with them,” Champlin said. “I don’t even know how to compare. We were so close. It’s going to be a whole new ball game with these guys coming in, trying to get them to be close. Because that’s the hardest thing to get is the camaraderie. I think we had really good group.”
Even without many key players returning, Champlin wasn’t afraid to give a prediction for next year’s team.
“We’re going to win it all. We’re going to win it all next year … Calling it now. It’s going to take some work, but we’re going to do it.”