THE WARRIOR WAY: Wabash Valley rides wave of emotion
Making the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series is always a thrill.
For Wabash Valley College (Illinois) it came down to heart-stopping 1-0 victory on a walk-off squeeze bunt in the Northern district title game.
The Warriors are hoping for more thrills in their first trip to Grand Junction since 1989.
“We are extremely excited, yeah, we’re pretty pumped up,” said Rob Fournier, the Warriors’ coach for the past 21 years.
Fournier said making it to JUCO was a long time coming, but the team had a hunch this year might be the Warriors’ year.
“We had a good feeling because we thought we were really balanced and we had so many players coming back this year,” he said. “We have seven position starters returning and a there’s lot of grit with those guys.”
With a district that includes perennial JUCO powerhouse Iowa Western Community College, Wabash Valley knew it was going to be a challenge to punch its ticket to Grand Junction.
“I think it started out with a tough nonconference schedule and playing good competition,” Fournier said. “Our conference is always a grind, it’s always a big thrill to get through that. It was obviously a special moment; we’ve been knocking on the door for a few years now.”
A deep and talented pitching staff was the key to the Warriors making it to JUCO.
With a team ERA of 2.26, Wabash Valley has shut down teams all season.
“I think the depth on the mound is our strength,” Fournier said. “We have some really good front-line starters and setup guys, and a good combination of righties and lefties, and a good bullpen.”
The Warriors’ bullpen is versatile — eight pitchers have at least one save. Wabash also uses a lot of pitchers and spread around the innings with the entire staff playing a role. Only four pitchers have thrown more than 50 innings this season.
The two go-to pitchers are Max Roberts, a 6-foot-5 left-hander starter, and Gio Nieves, a right-handed reliever.
“(Roberts) is your standard blue-collar left-hander. He has a competitive start every time out,” Fournier said. “He has great heart and competitiveness, especially as a freshman.”
The coach fully expected Nieves to be a redshirt in his first season.
“(Nieves) is the most improved player, we didn’t even think he would make the team,” Fournier said. “But now, he’s the guy we want out there when we need to get the last out.”
Roberts has 90 strikeouts in 82 innings pitched with an impressive 1.10 ERA. Neives has three saves with a 1.93 ERA.
Another right-handed freshman, Cameron Shyrock, has a 1.94 ERA in 51 innings.
The Warriors’ pitching staff has given up only 12 home runs and 102 earned runs and have a .215 batting average against this season.
At the plate, Fournier said David Rodriguez is the key.
The sophomore is hitting .400 with 54 RBI. Sophomore first baseman Romero Harris leads the team with 11 home runs and 61 RBI. Another sophomore, Diego Pichardo, is hitting .379 and leads the Warriors with 59 runs scored.
The Warriors have blown out plenty of teams this season, outscoring their opponents 457-150.
Fournier said he knows the players are in for an exciting time when they get to Grand Junction.
He also knows there’s no good way to prepare the Warriors for what to expect when they play their first game at Suplizio Field in front of thousands of fans.
“We’ll just play and see what happens,” he said.