‘Riders wear the crown
Romero, Turtle lead Yavapai to JUCO title
Guts, a healthy dose of adrenaline, a 15-strikeout performance and a guy named Turtle.
Yavapai College (Arizona) used everything the Roughriders had Saturday night to claim the school’s first Alpine Bank Junior College World Series championship since 1993, downing second-ranked San Jacinto College-North (Texas) 5-2.
“We’re going to let it all sink it tonight and enjoy it,” shortstop Ramsey Romano said. “It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
With JoJo Romero turning in a stellar game on the mound, striking out 15 San Jacinto batters and allowing only two runs on eight hits, Yavapai can finally head back to Prescott with the national championship in tow.
The 14th-ranked Roughriders won the Western District title in Trinidad on May 21 and elected to spend a couple of days in Denver before heading to Grand Junction instead of driving back to Arizona.
They lingered on the field for roughly 45 minutes after second baseman Dylan Enwiller sprinted into shallow right field for the final out, which had Romano ditching his crutches and hopping his way onto the celebratory dogpile.
Romano turned his left ankle in the first inning on an infield single, and the next ball was also hit to him. He fielded it but couldn’t make a play and was limping badly.
“I honestly don’t even know how I was able to stay out there,” he said as he leaned on crutches. “Obviously I was limping pretty heavy. I told myself when it happened I wasn’t coming off the field, but obviously it got to a point where I had to for the betterment of the team. I’m glad I did it.”
When he flied out in the second inning he could barely make it to first. Still, he kept going back into the game until the bottom of the sixth, when coach Ryan Cougill moved Rashaan “Turtle” Kuhaulua from third to short and inserted Jeddediah Fagg into Ramsey’s leadoff spot.
“He tried to suck it up,” Cougill said. “That type of injury probably wasn’t going to get worse, but he was hurt. It was a great time to show you’re only as good as your 26th guy and Turtle stepped in and Jed went over (to third).
“I feel a little bad for Ramsey, but now I feel great for him.”
The move showed immediately it was the right one at the right time, with the first two plays of the sixth inning going to Kuhaulua, including one fly ball in shallow left that Romano would have had no chance to get.
Kuhaulua was selected the Preston Walker MVP.
Romano’s insistence on playing was a testament to how the Roughriders played all week. They battled back from a second-round loss to win four straight elimination games.
“I think it was just answering adversity after you lose,” Cougill said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen after you lose, and after you win a game after you lose, things start to align themselves.”
Gavin Johns, who caught Romero’s gem, also provided the offensive spark the Roughriders (49-20 5-1 JUCO) needed after San Jac (52-12, 4-2) took a 2-0 lead after three innings.
Tanner Schuetz doubled home Baine Schoenvogel in the second for a 1-0 Gators lead, and a triple by Brandon Montgomery that glanced off right fielder Christian Maggi’s glove set up Ryan January’s RBI single in the third made it 2-0.
Kuhaulua got Yavapai on the board in the fifth with a solo home run to left, and leading off the sixth, Johns went down and got a low, outside curveball and drove it down the left-field line for a double.
“Two strikes, you sit fastball and adjust,” he said. “I was lucky to get my bat out there and hit it.”
He moved to third on a bunt and scored on a two-out single over first by Caden Goldby to tie the game. Johns’ double was the final pitch for San Jacinto starter Colten Schmidt, as the Gators went to reliever Cody Nesbit.
Brock Ephan reached on an infield single in the eighth and Nesbit made a mistake to Johns.
The Yavapai catcher thrust his right fist in the air as he rounded first, seeing the ball sailing over the fence in right-center, for a 4-2 Yavapai lead. The Roughriders added an insurance run in the ninth.
“It’s fun,” Johns said of hitting a home run in the national championship game. “It’s a lot of fun. I knew the game wasn’t over. In juco baseball, anything can happen.”
That anything was Romero, who struck out the side in the third despite giving up one run and falling behind 2-0.
After that, he got filthy, throwing just about any pitch he wanted for a strike.
“His change-up was plus-plus, he threw it whenever he wanted,” Cougill said. “He didn’t go to his breaking ball much, but his fastball, change, curve, slider and cutter were working and he could throw them whenever he wanted.
“That’s probably the most talented team in the country in San Jac, and I give them a ton of credit. That’s what makes what JoJo did even more special.”
Although he was nearing the end of the rope Cougill was willing to extend, he never lost his velocity.
“You saw a little life in (Romero) towards the end,” San Jac coach Tom Arrington said. “You could see the velocity measures up there. Maybe it’s the matchup and tonight was his night. He’s a very good pitcher for them.”
Romero has signed to go to Arizona next year, depending on this week’s Major League draft. His performance Saturday — 132 pitches, 95 for strikes — certainly didn’t hurt his stock.
“Mixing up speeds, the change-up was working well,” Romero said. “The fastball was in, the slider, everything was working and was well-located.”
Cougill said had the Gators gotten back to the top of the order in the ninth, he would have gone to his bullpen. Romero was having none of that.
“I wanted the ball,” he said. “I told (Cougill) especially that last inning, I think I was at 124 pitches, he asked me how I felt and I said, ‘I’m good. I’m in.’ He said, ‘OK, your game.’ ’‘
He struck out Max Wood and Caden Williams, giving him 15 on the night and 22 in the tournament.
“After I got those first two strikeouts I was feeling pretty good,” Romero said. “The first pitch (to Schoenvogel) I saw it go up, and with metal bats, they go a little deeper here. Our second baseman has probably the best range in the nation.
“Once it went up, I knew it.”