Experience from 2015 JUCO World Series helps Roughriders reach 2016 title game

Brock Ephan is one of only five Yavapai players who played in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series last year, when the Roughriders went 0-2. This year, Yavapai will play San Jacinto for the championship.

Not many players on the Yavapai College (Arizona) baseball team remember much about the Roughriders’ 2015 trip to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.

Some admit the lack of knowledge is because of the short stay in the tournament — Yavapai lost the only two games it played last year at Suplizio Field. A bigger reason for not remembering is because only five players from last year’s team are making their second trip to Grand Junction.

For those returnees, the knowledge from their JUCO experience has been invaluable.

“Our message was just to simplify the game and not to get caught up in trying to do too much or show off for whoever’s watching,” said sophomore relief pitcher Nicko Ortega, one of the returnees. “It’s a circus out here with the autograph signing and the atmosphere, so our goal from the beginning was to simply just focus on the reason we’re here.”

That mindset has helped Yavapai (48-21, 4-1 JUCO) accomplish its goals so far, going from a two-and-out performance last year to a berth in tonight’s national championship game. First pitch is at 7 tonight at Suplizio Field, where the Roughriders will try to win the school’s fourth baseball national title and first JUCO championship since 1993.

The only history the Yavapai players truly care about is the three-game winning streak the team is on since a 10-8 loss to Cisco College (Texas) on Sunday dropped the Roughriders into the losers’ bracket. Since that loss, they’ve eliminated three teams to earn a day off and a trip to the national title game. Because Yavapai had played more games than either Chattahoochee Valley or San Jacinto, the Roughriders got a bye into the championship game.

Ortega, Degan Harte, Brock Ephan, Ryan Oberg and Jesus Garcia are back from last year’s team, which lost to Chatt Valley and Iowa Western in 2015, making the Roughriders’ appearance seem like a blur.

“I barely even remember anything about last year,” Ephan said. “It seemed like it went that quickly.”

Losing so many players from last year’s team — seven were drafted in the Major League Baseball draft — Yavapai revamped its roster with transfers from NCAA Division I schools. Among the transfers are Rashaan “Turtle” Kuhaulua (San Jose State), JoJo Romero (Nevada), Ramsey Romano (Michigan) and Chase Beal (New Mexico). Romano’s .416 batting average leads the team, and Romero, along with freshman Avery Weems, are the top candidates to start tonight’s game, coach Ryan Cougill said.

Even the players who came from four-year programs had never seen the kind of atmosphere that comes with JUCO crowds, which is why Cougill is glad some of the returning players took it upon themselves to say something before the tournament.

“This game is all about rhythm, and if you can win that first losers’ bracket game, everyone you face from then on out had lost their previous game,” he said. “When you’ve won your previous game, you feel a little sexier than the team that’s coming off a loss.”

The Roughriders come into the title game on a roll, and Cougill believes the day off before the title game won’t stall that momentum.

“We really needed a day off, and I know we have momentum,” Cougill said. “I think the benefits of the day off far outweigh the benefits of playing every day, especially at this point of the season. And for the kind of game we’re playing in, we should have no trouble getting up for that.”


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