Old school, new school: Fun approach helps Johnson County break through
Johnson County Community College (Kansas) baseball coach Kent Shelley is old-school. He’s the most fundamental of the fundamentalists and a self-described “baseball traditionalist.”
It goes way beyond the standard “no crying in baseball” rule. There’s no rhythmic clapping or singing in a dugout manned by Shelley, at least for the first 26 seasons he coached JCCC.
But Shelley couldn’t contain this crop of Cavaliers.
Johnson County punched its second ticket to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series, its first since 2008, with a 2-0 win over Kansas City Kansas Community College in the Central District tournament.
It was a stellar and deep pitching rotation that pushed the Cavaliers through, but also a fair amount of shenanigans.
There was a mystery bottle of Billy Butler’s Barbecue Sauce in the dugout. There were dances and rituals, clapping and singing along to songs.
“At one point we lost five straight and I think that’s closest we’ve been to ever getting down,” Shelley said. “I come in and there’s a big sledgehammer sitting by the bat rack. I ask one of my kids about it and he comes up to me, grinning ear-to-ear, and says ‘Don’t worry about it, Coach, we’re about to break through.’
“This is a group that has made it fun, and at times, very interesting. But I believe the best coaches adjust to the group of players they have that year, and I feel like I had to adjust for these guys. They just love playing the game of baseball.”
There’s been adjustment for both Shelley and his players.
Johnson County is made up primarily of freshmen, with 23 to only eight sophomores.
But he said a mix of wise-beyond-their-years maturity and solid leadership from that small nucleus of sophomores has kept the freshmen pushing through a long season.
“First of all, I laugh at juco coaches, because you ask them how their team is a most of the time the answer is ‘young,’ “ Shelley said. “But I think with this group, if you look at it from top to bottom, we’re on the heavy end for freshmen. For a good part of the season, we’ve had up to eight freshmen in the starting lineup.
“To have the kind of success we’ve had, winning the conference, winning the region, posting an overall record with 50 wins, with a group this young is just tremendous.
“The sophomores have really taken ownership of this team and set out to build that camaraderie. They’ve taught these guys what it takes to grind through a 56-plus game season.”
With all the success of the freshman class, the best pitcher — and hitter — for the Cavaliers is a sophomore.
Aaron Schnurbusch, a University of Pittsburgh recruit, hit .369 for the Cavaliers with five home runs and a team-high 63 RBI.
But Schnurbusch’s real talent lies on the mound. When he’s not patrolling center field, Schnurbusch is the ace of the staff.
Although not a power pitcher with a fastball that tops out at 90 miles per hour, Shelley said Schnurbusch has exceptional command and secondary pitches that help him retire batters.
“He’s a big-time player who likes performing in the big moments,” Shelley said. “He has the makeup, everything you could possibly want in a guy on the mound. He commands the zone very well and can throw all his pitches for strikes.
“I’ve asked him if he likes pitching or playing in the field better, and I think he’ll be focusing on his pitching at the next level.”
Behind Schnurbusch, there’s large stable of options.
The Cavaliers have seven pitchers who average at least eight strikeouts per nine innings.
Only one pitcher has a losing record, and 11 of the 13 pitchers on the roster have at least one win.
Connor Miller, who amassed a 9-2 record over 91.1 innings, has an astounding 10.45 strikeouts per nine innings, a team high for a pitcher with more than 40 innings pitched.
“We’ve been very solid front-line starting pitching,” said Shelley, a member of the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. “There were times where our bullpen wasn’t as consistent as I would like it to be. But as a group, the bullpen got a lot of mechanical issues worked out and they came on really the last two, three weeks of the season right into the tournament. I like where this pitching staff is right now.”