Originally Published: June 5, 2016 6:03 a.m.
Updated as of Sunday, June 5, 2016 10:15 PM
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Yavapai College’s baseball team captured the storied program’s fourth national championship on Saturday night, June 4, after knocking off No. 2-ranked San Jacinto North (Texas), 5-2, in the 2016 Division JUCO World Series.
At Suplizio Field, the Roughriders won their first National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) D-I national championship since 1993. They also claimed the crown in 1975 and 1977. It was Yavapai’s ninth appearance at nationals.
“I’m speechless – I don’t know what just happened tonight,” fourth-year Yavapai coach Ryan Cougill said afterward. “You know, you believe it, but then again, it’s hard to do. So, I believe in our players. Our players get all the credit. Unbelievable players.”
For nationals stalwart San Jac of Houston, 2016 represented the program’s 21st appearance in the JUCO World Series. The Gators have won five national titles, but none since 1990. In 14 national championship games, they’ve been runner-up nine times. This was their seventh straight loss in the title contest.
For No. 14-ranked Yavapai, left-handed ace pitcher JoJo Romero was lights out.
He notched a complete-game victory, allowing only two runs on eight hits, striking out 15 and walking none. Romero compiled an unblemished 3-0 record at nationals. Gavin Johns was the hero offensively in the title game, going 2-for-5 with three RBIs and two runs scored.
“JoJo – oh my gosh! – awesome,” Cougill said. “We try to take care of our guys throughout the regular season so in the postseason they can do things like he just did.”
Romero said he told Cougill that he wanted to stay in the game and that there was no issue. Romero relied on his changeup to keep San Jac guessing.
“We just like to have fun, stay loose and play ball,” Romero said. “We don’t care about anything else. We just want the ball and we want to play.”
In a showdown between San Jacinto’s Colten Schmidt and Romero, Romero clearly won the duel.
Although starting Yavapai shortstop Ramsey Romano struggled with an ankle injury suffered early in the game, Turtle Kuhaulua seamlessly moved from third base to shortstop later in the contest.
After the game, Cougill – who was named all-tournament coach – received a Gatorade bath and a dumping of a bucket of unused chewing gum over his back from his lovable players.
It looked shaky for Yavapai in the early going, as the Roughriders trailed 2-0 through four innings. But when Kuhaulua ripped a solo homer in the fifth, the Roughriders gained some steam and never looked back.
Romano, the Roughriders’ All-Region shortstop and leadoff hitter, tweaked his left ankle on a routine defensive play in the first inning and didn’t look the same after that. But his teammates picked him up when it mattered most and helped YC get the big W.
San Jac took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Tanner Schuetz laced an RBI double down the left-field line.
Meanwhile, Yavapai compiled only one hit through three innings.
In the San Jac third, Brandon Montgomery singled, but there was a misplay by Christian Maggi in right for a two-base error as ball bounced past him. Ryan January then hit an RBI single for the 2-0 lead.
But it was all Yavapai after that.
In the fourth, Romero registered his fourth straight strikeout and eighth K overall to Schmidt’s 6 Ks through the frame.
In the fifth, Kuhaulua blistered his solo homer over the short porch in left to cut it to 2-1 San Jac.
Romero continued to deal in the bottom of the fifth, tallying his fifth straight strikeout and ninth overall on a nasty breaking ball in the dirt. He would end the inning by striking out Montgomery looking for his 10th K.
The tide turned for good in the sixth after Johns doubled on a breaking ball to left to lead off. Sidearm righty Cody Nesbit then relieved Schmidt with no outs.
Caden Goldby’s two-out RBI single to right scored Johns to tie it at 2-2 and set up the thrilling finish.
In the bottom of the sixth, Kuhaulua moved to shortstop and made a play on a grounder for the first out. Kuhaulua made the second out, too, catching a popup to left.
Tied at 2-2 in the seventh, San Jac’s Tanner Schuetz struck out, representing Romero’s 11th K on his 97th pitch.
In the eighth, the big bomb came when Johns crushed a two-run homer to center on Nesbit – who entered the game with a miniscule 0.43 ERA in 42 innings pitched –for YC’s first lead of the game, 4-2.
Romero stayed on in the eighth after having thrown 103 pitches. San Jac leadoff hitter John Grimsley struck out looking and was subsequently tossed for arguing balls and strikes.
Brandon Montgomery grounded out and January struck out swinging on a breaking ball for Romero’s 13th strikeout.
In the ninth, San Jac’s Jorge Fernendez entered in relief in the ninth. Jedd Fagg grounded out to second. Later, with the bases loaded, Hudson Treu relieved Fernandez with one out.
Johns hit a sacrifice fly in foul territory in right to score YC’s final run for the 5-2 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, Romero told Cougill that he wanted to stay on the mound, despite throwing the most pitches he’s had in a game this season.
He entered the frame having thrown 124 pitches, but Romero worked quickly. Max Wood and Caden Williams struck out swinging before Dylan Enwiller caught a popup while falling down in shallow right to end the contest as the Roughriders’ celebration ensued.
Yavapai finished the 2016 season with a 49-20 overall record (5-1 at nationals), while San Jac was 52-12 (4-2 at nationals).
“I felt like there were 8,000 people here and 7,000 were chanting and screaming, Yavapai,” Cougill said of Grand Junction’s reception for his team at the stadium on Saturday. “This place in awesome.”
This article first published on dCourier.com on Saturday, June 4, at 10:51 p.m.