THE STARS ALIGN :Well-rounded, close-knit Southern Nevada back in Grand Junction
Nick Garritano laughs about it.
“We don’t have Bryce in the lineup,” the College of Southern Nevada coach said of Bryce Harper, who played for the Coyotes when they were last in Grand Junction, in 2010.
“We don’t have the superstar, that’s not who we are. We are a team. That sort of sums up who we are. We’re not a one-man wrecking show, we don’t have one or two star pitchers. We have just sort of a next-man-up mentality.”
Ever since the Harper year, the Coyotes have been fighting to get back to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series. After that year, coach Tim Chambers left for UNLV and Southern Nevada hired a successful high school coach in Las Vegas. Garritano was a finalist for the job.
A few months later, the Coyotes were found to be in violation of several NJCAA rules, putting the program on probation for two years. As part of the penalty, the baseball team lost 10 scholarships in each of those two years. The staff was fired and Garritano got a phone call and a job offer.
He turned it down.
“I didn’t want to be the second-fiddle guy,” he said.
That prompted a call from Chambers.
“He told me, ‘They made a mistake. Do me a favor and take it,’ ‘’ said Garritano, who was a successful prep coach at Green Valley High School in Vegas.
“I took it over. It was a hornet’s nest and I knew it. My father told me, ‘God gives the toughest battles to the toughest warriors.’ It wasn’t easy; the first year was incredibly difficult.”
Once the probation was over, the Coyotes started seeing progress. They won three straight conference titles, and two years ago led Yavapai College (Arizona) in the district title game.
“We had Phil Bickford pitching against Yavapai and we threw seven innings with 15 strikeouts and no hits,” he said. “They scored, and we went up 2-1 in the ninth. They scored four off our closer, and he was the reliever of the year. It was one of those things; it wasn’t meant to be.
“It’s crazy. I tell people, junior college baseball deserved Bickford to be on the mound (in Grand Junction). He wasn’t Bryce, he wasn’t a first pick, but he had 166 strikeouts in 86 innings. It was unbelievable what he did, and when we didn’t make it that year I had a lot of questions. Are we meant for this? Are we ever going to get there?”
This year, they got there, and they did it in dramatic fashion.
Southern Nevada lost the opening game of both the regional and district tournaments, but fought back through the losers’ bracket.
“We lost our first round in Region 18 and won four in a row. We lost our first game in the (Western) district and won four in a row,” he said. “We’ve taken the high-pressure route. Could we please get a win in the first round, just try to win the first game?”
As Garritano said, he doesn’t have a superstar lineup, but he likes this club.
“This year we don’t have the power, we don’t have the big pitcher, we have a team, and they just bond,” he said. “It’s just a family. They have a relentless attitude, a never-quit attitude. No matter what the score is, they’re going to scratch and claw to the very end.
“I think that’s something important for this week coming up. We’ve played with our backs against the wall. It’s very tough for anybody to go undefeated at this stage and we’re in a situation where we understand how to play from behind.”
The team batting average is .299 — but the Coyotes play with wood bats until the district playoffs. Garritano doesn’t have a pitcher with 100 strikeouts, and they aren’t going to light up the radar gun. But they know how to pitch.
“They go out and throw strikes, use their defense,” he said. “We play very good defense. We had an awful start to the year. Oh, my gosh, we were 3-8, 4-7, I was about off the ledge because we were playing awful defense but we’ve played really good defense since then.
“The numbers are what they are, they don’t blow anybody’s mind. They aren’t big velo (velocity) guys, they’re just pitchers. We’ve got two lefties at about 86 (mph), crafty. We can pitch backwards when we need to and they’re very competitive. It’s helped this group get to where they are.”
Those lefties, Ben Cutting and Todd Danzeisen, have 73 and 60 strikeouts, respectively, and Isaiah Blaylock (9-3) shut down Trinidad in the district tourney. Blake Inouye came out of the bullpen in an elimination game for a long relief stint and struck out 14 in seven innings.
Offensively, the Coyotes know how to manufacture runs, and the hitters were thrilled to get their aluminum bats back for the playoffs.
“Our leadoff hitter (Jordan Macias) was hitting in the 9-hole all year and I moved some things around in regionals to spark some offense and he’s absolutely gone crazy,” Garritano said of the freshman third baseman.
“We lost (sophomore outfielder) Blake Wiggins until the last three weeks. Last year he hit 12 home runs and 59 RBI, then he went to Arkansas in the fall and needed surgery on his hand and came back.
“They wanted to redshirt him but he didn’t want to. He was down eight or nine weeks and we got him back three weeks ago and put him back in the 4-hole. Saturday (in back-to-back wins to clinch the World Series berth) he was 5 for 9 with five RBI.
“We’ve had so many different guys that stepped in. We can do a little bit of everything. It’s a fun group to watch.”