Apache pride: Cochise College squeezes into playoffs, makes way to GJ
Cochise College is a testament to getting hot at the right time.
The Apaches’ playoff fortunes came down to the final day of the regular season. A doubleheader against Central Arizona. Cochise had to at least split, or the season was over.
“We had to win a game on the last game of the year just to get to the playoffs,” Cochise coach Todd Inglehart said. “We had to split with Central at Central to get in, and we did. Then we matched up with them in the first round (of the playoffs) and swept them and we played well all week after that in the regional championship.”
With Region 1 hosting the Western District playoffs, two teams from the region qualified for the district playoffs to make it a four-team tournament instead of an awkward three-team setup. South Mountain was the top seed out of the region, Cochise got in as the No. 2 team.
“A lot of fortunate things happened,” Inglehart said. “Nineteen-and-nineteen in conference isn’t real sexy, but it was good enough to get in.”
And that’s all the Apaches needed. Well, and adjusting to playing with — and against — metal bats. Region 1 is a wood-bat region, but in the playoffs, since the national tournament is played with BBCOR bats, the switch is made. Getting 27 outs was an exhausting process, Inglehart said of the district playoffs.
“It was the first time swinging metal for everybody. All through the region we hit wood and our conference was dominated by pitching,” he said. “There was good pitching, but it was hot, 105 (degrees) and the ball was jumping a little bit.
“The infield was hard and it’s a big yard, and you’ve got metal bats in people’s hands, you start to run out of pitching and you’re facing kids with 200 at-bats under their belt. It all lined up that way and it was really hard to get people out.”
The Apaches (37-27) got enough outs to get it done and return to the JUCO World Series for the second straight year.
It’s a much different team than last season, with only a handful of sophomores, but a talented group. Wood bats skew the offensive stats somewhat, but this is a team that can hit for average and some power.
Three players hit over .300, led by freshman shortstop Louis Boyd’s .330 average. He leads the Apaches with 13 stolen bases in 18 attempts and has 11 doubles. Darick Hall, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound freshman who plays first and does some pitching, hits .324 and leads the team with five home runs. Austin Nelson, the Apaches’ sophomore third baseman, is hitting .310 with 21 doubles and four home runs.
“We’ve been such a different team the last month offensively,” Inglehart said. “We’re totally different, even when we were in the playoffs. When you run the ones (No. 1 pitchers) out there, they’re really good. The scoring is down, then when both teams go to game two, you start to put some runs up, even with wood. We were getting a little hop and figuring it out. Now with metal in their hands, their confidence level is up.”
Despite hitting only 21 home runs this season, Inglehart said this is a team that can drive the ball. Pitching dominates play in Arizona, and he knows it’s not going to get any easier in Grand Junction.
At the same time, “We’ve faced extremely good pitching all year in and out of conference,” he said. “It’s definitely not going to get any easier, but it’s not necessarily going to be harder.”
In conference play, the Apaches weren’t afraid to pitch to contact, knowing they could induce ground balls. That approach changed once they got into the playoffs.
“This weekend we pitched away from contact all weekend, everyone did,” Inglehart said. “It’s so hard to get people out. It’s much more stressful. There’s a guy there with a Bomb Bat and your best guy’s used to throwing 10-, 12-pitch innings. Our No. 1 guy went 70-78 pitches, complete game, with a wood bat. It’s totally different, but everybody has the same deal.”
Steve Naemark, a sophomore left-hander, comes into the World Series with 117 1/3 innings of work. He’s 8-6, with 88 strikeouts and only 19 walks, and has thrown eight complete games. Xavier Altamirano, a sophomore right-hander, has thrown 102 2/3 innings, with 71 strikeouts and 25 walks, with four complete games, showing that low-pitch innings allows for more innings pitched.
Returning to Grand Junction in back-to-back years isn’t lost on Inglehart.
“I think in every sport, in every level, it’s so hard to repeat in anything,” he said. “To be able to do what we’ve done the previous year. We had so many breaks, were in the right place at the right time, had the right matchups. Last year we had a very good club and we had that 36-hour rain delay (in the district playoffs) to get our minds right. It’s so hard and you have to jump through so many hoops just to get there. There are some really good teams out there that still don’t get there.”
He’ll take the same approach to preparing his freshmen for what to expect.
“There are so many crooked numbers that are put up,” he said. “There are 3s and 4s all over the (score)board, you’re going to give up runs. Stay away from crooked numbers and we’ll be OK. We’re going to score, they’re going to score.”
And his experience last season helped Inglehart not only prepare this club for what to expect, but gave him a plan for his entire program.
“I think more so it helped me from a program standpoint,” he said. “It gave me aspirations of knowing what it takes to get there. It’s not what people used to think, that you have to have middle-of-the-lineup guys, certain guys in certain roles, a leadoff guy or a four-hole guy. It totally changed my idea of a program to consistently get back there.
“It was such a motivation for me. The sophomores obviously were motivated to get there, but the recruiting aspect and to constantly grind away.
“There’s heartache. Such great memories, but also heartache, but it helped me really refocus on what’s important to be able to get there.”