By ED PETRUSKA, Contributing Writer Pinal Central
SIGNAL PEAK — Pitching, power at the plate and speed on the basepaths figure to be strong suits for the Central Arizona College baseball team this season.
The Vaqueros also have 20 sophomores on their 27-man active roster, another major reason why fifth-year coach Anthony Gilich expects his squad to contend for an NJCAA World Series berth.
"Our pitching is going to be good and we're sophomore-heavy at almost every position," Gilich said. "We have a ton of team speed and guys with power. We have a bunch of layers to our offense and ways to put pressure on (opponents)."
The Vaqueros open their season against New Mexico Junior College in Henderson, Nevada, on Friday. It's the first of 13 nonconference games prior to a Feb. 16 home doubleheader against Paradise Valley that begins their 38-game Arizona Community College Athletic Conference schedule.
Central has registered 42 or more victories in each of the last three seasons. Last year's 45-13 campaign featured a pair of 14-game winning streaks but it ended in disappointment when the third-seeded Vaqueros were swept 2-0 by second-seeded Arizona Western in the opening round of the Division I Region 1 playoffs.
"We won a lot of games, but what it comes down to is executing in (the postseason)," Gilich said. "You've got to win the right games at the right time."
Three of the four spots in the starting rotation are set, as are all four infield positions and one outfield spot.
The No. 1 starter is left-hander Lucas Knowles, who helped the University of Washington advance to the NCAA College World Series last year by going 6-5 in 23 games (15 starts) with a 4.35 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 21 walks in 89 innings pitched.
Returning right-hander Jason Nelson can bring 95 mph heat. He went 5-2 in 15 games (12 starts) last season with a 3.60 ERA, 98 strikeouts and 35 walks in 65 innings.
Right-hander Jonathan Stroman is the No. 3 starter. He played at Yavapai last year, going 5-5 in 14 games (10 starts) with a 3.41 ERA, 58 strikeouts and 21 walks in 66 innings.
Vying for the No. 4 spot in the rotation are freshman left-hander Leo Palacios and sophomore right-hander Brandon Jenkins, a transfer from Campbell University of the NCAA Big South Conference. Jenkins went 3-1 in 14 games (10 starts) last season with a 4.35 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 42 walks in 49 2/3 innings.
Right-hander Dakota Donovan, a sophomore transfer from NCAA College World Series champion Oregon State, will be the closer. He appeared in four games and pitched seven innings for the Beavers last season, going 0-0 with a 3.86 ERA.
Bullpen returners are right-hander Avery Jones, who went 1-0 in 12 games (one start) with a 3.43 ERA, 22 strikeouts and eight walks in 21 innings; Koa Eastlack, a left-hander who went 1-1 in nine games with a 4.50 ERA, nine strikeouts and six walks in 10 innings; and left-hander Jye Deeble, who like Eastlack is in his third year with the program. Deeble sat out last season after going 3-2 in 13 games (six starts) with a 6.32 ERA, 32 strikeouts and 16 walks in 31 1/3 innings in 2017.
Gilich is confident his 12-man staff will be up to the challenge.
"Our pitchers have a lot of experience," he said. "They'll compete and find a way to win even when they don't have their best stuff."
CAC is redshirting Florence High School product Mat Olsen. The right-hander went 9-2 with a 1.01 ERA, 121 strikeouts and 24 walks in 55 1/3 innings as a senior for the Gophers last season.
Four of the eight position starters are returners, along with CAC's primary designated hitter. Shortstop Liam Spence, center fielder Brennan Reback and DH/outfielder Daniel Cervantes were named to the all-ACCAC first team. Third baseman Ernny Ordonez was voted to the all-conference second team. Josh Dudden will start at first base.
Spence batted .391 with 33 RBIs, 23 extra-base hits (17 doubles, three triples, three home runs) and 17 stolen bases. Reback batted .348 with 38 RBIs, 12 extra-base hits (four doubles, five triples, three homers) and 36 steals. Both players were ACCAC Gold Glove winners last season.
Cervantes hit a team-leading eight home runs (tied for third in the ACCAC) and batted .314 with 28 RBIs.
Ordonez was left off the all-ACCAC first team despite tying for third in the conference with a .398 average and tying for eighth with 47 RBIs. He had eight triples — third in the ACCAC — along with 19 doubles, four home runs and 10 steals.
Dudden batted .309 with 12 RBIs in 68 at-bats last season. Also back are outfielder Luke Schwartz (.339, 14 RBIs in 62 at-bats), catcher Nate Young (.471 in 17 at-bats) and outfielder/designated runner Clayton Keyes (team-leading 37 steals).
Schwartz is battling Arizona State transfers Zach Hogueisson and Hunter Jump for the corner outfield spots. Jump batted .370 with 22 RBIs in 100 at-bats for the Sun Devils last season. Young is in the mix to start at catcher, along with freshmen Jake Meyer and Brady Welch. Meyer redshirted at the University of Arizona last season.
The starting second baseman is sophomore Ian Raidy, who led the NJCAA in stolen bases with 49 in 2017 when he played for South Mountain CC.
The ACCAC will have seven Division I teams and seven D-II teams this year. Joining CAC in D-I are South Mountain, Arizona Western, Cochise, Yavapai, Eastern Arizona and Pima (which has moved up from D-II). Competing in D-II are Mesa, Glendale, Paradise Valley, Phoenix, Scottsdale, GateWay and Chandler-Gilbert.
Nine of the 14 conference teams finished with overall winning records in 2018. The D-I playoff berths went to South Mountain (46-15), region champion Western (49-16), CAC and Cochise (35-23). Fourth-seeded Scottsdale (32-32) won the D-II region title, sweeping a best-of-three series from third-seeded Paradise Valley (37-23).