Rob Fournier figures Monday will hit him the hardest.
“Monday is a big day,” the baseball coach of top-ranked Wabash Valley College (Illinois) said. “The year before last we were out and playing Memorial Day, and that’s such a beautiful day, a beautiful night, to play.”
The sting of losing their seasons had started to lessen a bit for junior college baseball players and coaches. Then came May, when they should have been preparing for the regional, then district playoffs.
“Absolutely. This is the pinnacle of where you’re trying to be,” Fournier said. “At this time of year you’re trying to stay alive and playing, you want to be a part of it. If you’re playing, that’s the ultimate goal, but it’s wonderful just to watch it, too. We’re all talking about it, a lot of our friends and coaches. You can feel it even without talking about it.”
And the past few days, so many of them believed they would have been on planes or buses, headed to Grand Junction for the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
“I’ve (seen) on Twitter about 75 junior colleges that said they would have won it all,” Yavapai College (Arizona) coach Ryan Cougill said, chuckling. “It would have been a really competitive playoff, I think.”
Several coaches agreed that this year’s field could have been one for the ages, and the 10 teams that survived their district tournaments would be up to the task in what would have been the first seeded tournament in 63 years.
“Our conference was really competitive and that doesn’t include the regions from north of us,” said Cougill, whose Roughriders were 22-3 and tied for No. 4 in the nation with Iowa Western. “Arizona would have hosted our district this year, which would have put two competitive teams (from our league) in there, so yeah, it’s one of those things where it would have been a nightmare to get through, but to get through it, you would have been pretty much as prepared as you could be.”
Throughout the 10 districts, teams — and talent — seemed to be on the uptick.
“I’ve talked about that with a lot of coaches,” Fournier said. “Junior colleges are going to get better and better, not only because of what’s going on right now with the Division I rules and the draft, but it was starting to elevate anyway. It was going to be special. Everywhere in the country there were good teams.”
With the NCAA voting down the proposal to allow one-time transfers in baseball, basketball and football without penalty of sitting out a year, junior college coaches expect an influx of top-level talent next season. Add to that the expectation of Major League Baseball limiting its draft next month to five rounds, that means more college players looking for places to play.
“Wait ’til next year. The talent level in junior college may be the best it’s ever been,” Johnson County Community College (Kansas) coach Kent Shelley said. “This draft situation has totally changed the landscape and we’re going to benefit big-time from it. It’ll be a fun year next year.”
Shelley won’t be in the Cavaliers’ dugout to watch that — he announced before the season he was retiring, and despite his athletic director asking him to change his mind, he decided to, as he put it, “ride off into the sunset.”
Shelley went out coaching one of the top players in junior college baseball, infielder Brady Slavens, who transferred from Wichita State at semester. In 22 games, he hit .507 with a nation-leading 14 home runs and 47 RBI, also the best in the NJCAA. The JUCO Baseball Blog selected him its national player of the year.
“He’s just an all-around dude,” Shelley said of Slavens, who has signed to play at Arkansas next season. “He’s the real deal.”
This week could have meant the return of San Jacinto College-North (Texas), which was ineligible for the playoffs last season. The Gators were 18-6 and ranked No. 13, with Mitchell Parker leading the nation in strikeouts with 64 in six games (30 1/3 innings). McLennan Community College (Texas) had Prep Baseball Report’s top junior college pitching prospect for the upcoming draft, freshman right-hander Connor Phillips.
Sixth-ranked Odessa College (Texas) had a .403 team batting average, just ahead of Cisco College (Texas) at .400 and Johnson County at .398.
“I got 23 games with them and man, I never enjoyed more going to the ballpark and sitting in the dugout and watching these guys do what they do,” Shelley said. “They were so fun and so good. That’s what I’m most sad about, not having them have the opportunity to finish what they started.”
That’s one regret for Fournier and the Warriors, that they didn’t get the chance to test their club in the playoffs, which could have come down to another knock-down, drag-out series against Iowa Western in the newly named Midwest District.
He had a couple of the top-rated pitchers in the nation, right-hander CJ Weins, who has signed to play at South Carolina, and left-hander Cameron Tullar, who will pitch at Mississippi State next season. Both are draft-worthy, but in a short draft, no one is sure what will happen.
“It was just one of those deals, we didn’t get to test it, but boy, things were really starting to feel good,” Fournier said. “We had a lot of returners back, felt we had some unfinished business. It was hurtful, that’s for sure.”
Cougill ticked off a handful of teams that could have contended for the West District berth just from Arizona.
“South Mountain was really good,” he said. “Central (Arizona, the defending national champion) of course is always good and Arizona Western was as good as I’ve ever seen them.”
Dozens of teams posted “wish we were there” sentiments Saturday morning on their Twitter accounts, with photos attached of recent trips to Suplizio Field as they wonder what might have been.
With the talent level on the rise and more equitable teams, Cougill said it would have been fun to add a half-dozen at-large selections on top of the 10 district champions this year.
“Grand Junction folks would have been in for a treat if you could have taken two Arizona teams, two from the region with Iowa Western, Wabash, (John A.) Logan, Triton, then Florida and Texas ... Whoa, boy, that would have been fun.”