San Jacinto proves its mettle to coach at JUCO

Michael Velasquez and the rest of the San Jacinto (Texas) College-North Gators have played better as the season gets later, including winning three of their four games at JUCO.

Just about every year San Jacinto (Texas) College-North has qualified for the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series — and that’s been 19 times — the Gators have come in with a high national ranking and a gaudy record.

And they’ve always been among the favorites to win the title.

This season, though, the Gators scuffled through the regular season and weren’t favored to even win the Southern District tournament.

But the later the hour, the better the Gators played, winning games well after midnight, winning extra-inning games — just winning.

“We were uneasy with a lot of things through the course of the year and toward the regional playoffs. I think winning all those late-inning games, 1:30, 2:30 in the (morning), when you spend that much time with people, you tend to bond a little bit more and stick it out through thick and thin,” San Jacinto coach Tom Arrington said Thursday after the Gators bounced back from their first loss in the tournament to eliminate Shelton State (Ala.) Community College 7-6.

There was a point in the season that Arrington wasn’t sure this club would have what it takes to get to Grand Junction, which would be the first time the Gators had missed the national tournament two years in a row since a six-year hiatus from 1991 to 1996. That’s when the sophomores decided that wasn’t an option, and they rattled off four wins in the district tournament, including a 17-inning, 3-0 win over Galveston College to get to the title game. They won that 1-0 over defending national champion Navarro College.

“We came in the year, our coaches weren’t really sure how far we would go,” said freshman center fielder Reggie Wilson. “We didn’t win one game in the fall. We came back in the spring and had to show them up. Our coaches didn’t know if we would get here or not, and we had to prove them wrong.”

Even once the Gators qualified, Arrington wasn’t sure how long they’d stick around.

“I thought we’d be here two days and go home,” Arrington said, grinning sheepishly. “But then there’s Gordon, too. Anything can happen.”

By winning Thursday’s game, the Gators won one of the toughest emotional battles of the tournament. Often the team that loses Wednesday’s night game can’t let that loss go — they’re so close to the title game, and then have to come back through the elimination bracket.

That didn’t happen to the Gators, though.

“I’m hoping that’s as low as they can get, is (Wednesday) night,” Arrington said. “They made better choices about their commitment to what’s going on.”

And what’s going on is a more relaxed team that isn’t fretting about winning and losing.

“After a loss we just try to look past it and come back together as a team,” Wilson said. “Some people still had it on their shoulder; a lot of people didn’t sleep well (Wednesday) night. We just came in this morning and tried to put it in the past.”

And, Wilson said, he’ll be one of those sophomores next year demanding the Gators make it back-to-back trips.

“We’ll be back next year,” he said. “San Jac’s always supposed to come back. I guarantee you we will not fall short next year.”


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