WNC baseball gets top-ranked team in country | NevadaAppeal.com

WNC baseball gets top-ranked team in country

Justin Lawson

Major League scouts have grown accustom to the surroundings of Morse Stadium in Henderson. And since the arrival of home-grown talent Bryce Harper along with the return of a bevy of excellent players from last season’s team, games at the College of Southern Nevada have been chalked full of curious onlookers.

“With him and the pitching there’s been a lot of scouts and a lot of hype,” CSN coach Tim Chambers said. “That doesn’t win games, but having him (Harper) there it’s certainly brought in bigger crowds, more scouts and more excitement because people want to see him play and he could possibly be the number one pick.”

The attention, though, is something that the Western Nevada College baseball team has grown used to as well. The Wildcats, after all, are coming off a season in which they played the No. 1-ranked team in JUCO baseball in front of 10,000 fans. So, playing this season’s top-ranked team and possibly the No. 1 player selected in this year’s MLB first-year player draft in Harper isn’t as daunting of a task as it may seem.

“The way we operate as an organization, our guys are loose,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore, who led the Wildcats to third-place finish at last year’s JUCO World Series. “You couldn’t tell if we were playing in a World Series or a meaningless game after the race has been concluded.”

The fifth-ranked Wildcats (3-1 Scenic West Athletic Conference, 15-4 overall) will face in-state rival Southern Nevada (3-1, 16-4) today as part of a doubleheader, which begins at 4 p.m. The two will play a second doubleheader Saturday beginning at noon.

WNC is off to its best start in school history after starting off its previous three seasons 2-6, 2-7, 2-6. After splitting its opening series with South Mountain, 2-2, WNC won nine games straight. But Whittemore cautions that when his teams started off poorly, it gave them room to improve.

“To be honest, I don’t mind starting slow because it gives you a lot of room to improve, it gives you a lot of things to improve upon,” Whittemore said. “When you’re winning it’s a little bit harder to get better just because we haven’t had our weaknesses exposed like I’m sure they will be this weekend.”

The key to this season’s success has been a mixture of returning players who have either continued playing well, such as last season’s SWAC Pitcher of the Year Kramer Champlain (0.65 ERA in 27.2 innings), returners who didn’t contribute last season like Jeremy Gendlek (1.46 ERA in 24.2 innings) and freshmen making an immediate impact.

Spencer Ofelt, who replaced arguably the best shortstop in Region XVIII in Daniel Zylstra who left for Oklahoma State following his freshman year, has stepped in to provide the Wildcats with solid defense (.984 fielding percentage) and is third on the team in batting average with a .349 and RBIs with 13.

Harper has been tabbed as baseball’s next phenom, having already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and been the subject of conversation for his monstrous hits that can be seen on Youtube. He leads the Coyotes with a .408 batting average and six home runs and is second in RBIs with 20.

While it’s still early in the season, this series is likely a preview to the conference tournament championship game. The preview part, though, is likely to be a good thing for both considering neither team has seen each other play this season, rather relying on word of mouth and stats to judge how good each other is.

“(We’re) just ready to play,” Chambers said. “You get into conference play and it’s six days between games. That part of it kind of stinks.

“We just expect a competitive series. They’re always pretty competitive. They enjoy playing us, we enjoy playing them and I’m excited to see what they’re all about. They’ve got a lot of new players and we don’t really know much about them other than couple guys that they got on the mound back and maybe one or two position players that played last year.”