AIMING HIGHER: High-scoring McLennan hoping to take back title
McLennan Community College (Texas) is back and the Highlanders hope to win one more game than they did in 2015.
The final game.
Two years ago, the Highlanders made the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series championship game but lost to Northwest Florida State College.
This will be the Highlanders’ fifth trip to Grand Junction. They won the title in 1983.
“We’d like to make maybe one step higher,” coach Mitch Thompson said with a chuckle. “I’m so incredibly excited for these kids. They’re great and to get the opportunity to experience Grand Junction is a dream come true.”
Thompson said this year’s Highlanders team is mostly about hitting.
“Our lineup offensively has a lot of firepower, and that’s really our strength,” he said. “This team is built for Grand Junction. That’s really an offensive ballpark.”
Suplizio Field has long benefited a long-ball hitting team. But two years ago, the Highlanders came in with only 29 home runs and made the title game.
This year’s power-hitting lineup ranks third in the nation with 94 home runs. McLennan’s 564 runs are the fifth-most in the nation.
“We’ve got a very, very good hitting team. Our lineup is pretty potent and has some firepower throughout,” Thompson said.
That firepower centers around five players who all have more than 61 RBI.
“Four are sophomores, all going to big-time Division I programs,” Thompson said.
The fifth is freshman catcher Josh Breaux, who Thompson calls a legitimate Major League prospect.
Breaux is one of two hitters who are hitting better than .400. He has 69 RBI, 15 home runs and a .733 slugging percentage.
What makes the Highlanders extra dangerous is leadoff hitter Chris Roller, who ranks in the top 10 in the nation in runs scored (82), stolen bases (31) and doubles (25), to go along with his .414 batting average and 67 RBI.
“He can run, he can hit, he’s really our leader,” Thompson said. “He’s a very complete offensive player and arguably our most valuable player.”
Brendan Venter has hit 15 home runs and has 69 RBI, and Nic Motley leads the team in home runs with 16, and has 61 RBI.
The final major run-producer for the Highlanders is Joe Breaux, Josh’s older brother, who has 64 RBI on the season.
“It’s nice to have this kind of offensive lineup,” Thompson said.
Even though the Highlanders can score lots of runs, Thompson is quick to say they are a complete ballclub.
“We’re young but deep,” he said about the pitching staff. “We have three or four starters that are freshmen but they’re young, talented guys.”
Two of the main starters are freshmen Bailey Horn and Jase Embry, who both have more than 70 innings pitched and 70 strikeouts on the season.
Horn, a left-hander, is 7-0 with a 3.28 ERA. Embry, a right-hander, is 8-2 with a 4.21 ERA.
Horn has pitched four complete games and Embry three.
A key pitcher for McLennan is reliever Palmer Wenzel, who has eight saves and a 2.93 ERA.
“Palmer is at the end of our bullpen but he’s more than just that,” Thompson said. “He played a huge role in the (district) title game for us. We brought him in early when we were behind 6-1 and we knew we needed to put up zeros if we were going to have a chance.”
The sophomore pitched four-plus innings in the 14-8 win over Weatherford Community College.
Only three players have picked up saves for the Highlanders with one being Josh Breaux, who has thrown 12 2/3 innings, struck out 22 hitters and picked up two saves.
Thompson said McLennan is a well-rounded team.
“We have a lot of good athletes, we play good defense, we’re not just an offensive team that will try to beat you 17-15. We will also limit you on the mound,” he said. “But we will score runs.”
The Highlanders have outscored their opponents 564-260 on the season.
McLennan spent part of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation and went 19-0 in April.
With an entirely new team headed back to JUCO from its runner-up squad from 2015, Thompson said the coaching staff has been reminding players about Grand Junction all season.
“We talk to them every day about getting back to Grand Junction. Our goal is to get better every day but we want them to know how special it is to get to Grand Junction,” he said.
McLennan Community College Highlanders
Hometown: Waco, Texas
Coach: Mitch Thompson
NJCAA ranking: No. 4
Top hitters: Chris Roller, CF, So. .414, 67 RBI, 25 2B, 5 3B, 9 HR, 31 SB/33 SBA; Josh Breaux, C, Fr., .400, 69 RBI, 18 2B, 1 3B, 15 HR, 1 SB/2 SBA; Brendan Venter, 3B, So., .362, 69 RBI, 14 2B, 2 3B, 15 HR, 0 SB/1 SBA; Nic Motley, DH/1B, So., .328, 61 RBI, 14 2B, 3 3B, 16 HR, 4 SB/6 SBA; Joe Breaux, OF, So., .351, 64 RBI, 18 2B, 6 3B, 10 HR, 16 SB/21 SBA.
Top pitchers: Bailey Horn, LHP, Fr., 7-0, 0 SV, 3.28 ERA, 74 IP, 72 K, 31 BB, .224 BAA; Jace Embry, RHP, Fr., 8-2, 0 SV, 4.21, 72.2 IP, 78 K, 22 BB, .234 BAA; Jason Blanchard, LHP, SO., 7-0, 0 SV, 2.83 ERA, 57.1 IP, 55 K, 25 BB, .246 BAA; Palmer Wenzel, RHP, So., 5-2, 8 SV, 2.93, 30.2 IP, 29 K, 7 BB, .256 BAA; Kyrell Miller, RHP, Fr., 6-1, 0 SV, 3.42 ERA, 50 IP, 52 K, 20 BB, .259 BAA.
Fun fact: Freshman shortstop George Callil is from Melbourne, Australia. He was recruited based solely on a video.
Coach says: “This team is built for Grand Junction, that’s really an offensive ballpark.” — Mitch Thompson