Yavapai’s quick rebuild from 2015 leads to title in 2016

Yavapai’s Rashaan Kuhaulua, 5, celebrates with a teammate Saturday after winning the JUCO World Series title. Kuhaulua was one of several Division I transfers who joined the Roughriders in hopes of winning a title.

Junior college baseball is about building, rebuilding and reloading, and doing it quickly.

Players come and go quickly at the juco level. They all hope to come to Grand Junction and play in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series, but most are looking for quality playing time and the chance to continue developing as baseball players.

Then, who knows? Off to a Division I program? Get drafted by a Major League team?

Yavapai College came to JUCO last year and headed back to Prescott, Arizona, after two quick losses. Then they lost seven players to the MLB draft and only five players returned to Grand Junction from the 2015 team.

It was time to rebuild quickly. For coach Ryan Cougill, he needed to fill holes vacated by the departed players.

Nothing new at the juco level.

“We tried to fill a dynamic team that could run, that could bunt, hit with some power, play some defense,” he said.

Hitting for average and finding some lights-out pitchers were also on the agenda.

The Roughriders brought an ultra-talented team to Grand Junction, and the result was a national title.

“You have to develop at our level, but recruiting has a lot to do with it. It’s all about the players you get,” Cougill added.

For JoJo Romero, a dominating complete-game performance Saturday was the culmination of a dream switch to juco from Division I.

The plan when he came to Yavapai was to develop more as a pitcher and maybe have a chance to play in the World Series.

“This is the ultimate goal to get to this point. Coach Cougill said he would get us back to Grand Junction and that was the motivation,” Romero said. “This is definitely a special moment. I mean, it’s the World Series.”

The next stop for Romero will be determined by the MLB draft.

Will he ever play in the majors? How about San Jacinto College-North’s Devin Smeltzer or Ryan January?

There will be a bunch of players who competed this week at Suplizio Field who will be drafted.

The top juco programs around the country look to build a team that will come to Grand Junction to compete for a national title.

The greatest recruiting tool for a team is to qualify for the JUCO World Series.

Yavapai put together a dynamic team with DI transfers like Romero, shortstop Ramsey Romano and third baseman Rashaan Kuhaulua, the 2016 Preston Walker MVP. They were brought in to learn the game better and to help the Roughriders win a JUCO title.

They accomplished both.

“These kids come to Yavapai to go to school and learn how to play the game better,” Cougill said after an earlier game.

Junior college is great way to be better prepared for Division I or minor league baseball.

Many of these players are polishing their skills to move to the Division I level. Others, like January, Romero and Smeltzer came to a juco to play one year, then evaluate their draft slot.

Then they’ll start on the journey to a possible MLB career or to toil in the minors for several years before returning to the real world.

Smeltzer, who had an overpowering 20-strikeout game Friday night, said he transferred from Florida Gulf Coast to San Jac to get better.

“I came here to get developed and have the opportunity to get drafted or maybe move on to another Division I,” he said.

These players have MLB dreams, just like Bryce Harper did when he played at JUCO. But will they make it?

Assembling a talented juco team guarantees nothing. San Jac has placed second nine times and Tom Arrington, who started coaching the Gators in 2001, has now been the runner-up at the JUCO World Series five times.

This was Yavapai’s year. The Roughriders constructed a championship team.

For San Jac, the Gators also constructed one heck of a team. Probably one of the finest pitching staffs that’s ever come to Grand Junction.

But it wasn’t enough and it was another second place for the team from Houston.

It was the year of the Roughrider.

Next year? It starts with finding talented players, assembling talented players and replacing talented players.

Yavapai did that this year.

Then, it comes down to playing well in Grand Junction.

Yavapai did that this year after not playing well in 2015.

The Roughriders reloaded and rebuilt a title team, one that brought the trophy back to Prescott for the first time in 23 years.

The players have big dreams but Saturday night, they lived the juco dream.

For Romano, a foot injury forced him to the bench in the sixth inning.

As the stands were nearly empty and his teammates still mingled, laughed and smiled, Romano lay on the field soaking in the moment.

“I can’t even put into words, I love these guys so much. What we did here is going to last forever,” he said.

This group of Roughriders weren’t thinking about the MLB draft or where they will be playing next year.

All that mattered Saturday night was the Yavapai Roughriders were 2016 JUCO national champs.


Yavapai 5,
San Jacinto 2

Yavapai wins fourth JUCO World Series title


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