Originally Published: January 27, 2010 11:20 p.m.
For each of the past two years, the Yavapai College baseball team has had to swallow a bitter pill.
Twice the Roughriders claimed the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference's regular season crown only to fall to red-hot Central Arizona College at home in the National Junior College Athletic Association's Region I, Division I championship round.
Despite those failures and losing six everyday starters and all four starting pitchers this past off-season, YC (47-12 record in 2009) has reloaded with a 27-man roster in 2010.
Needless to say, the program is seeking redemption. The 'Riders open the new campaign with a doubleheader Friday afternoon at Salt Lake CC in Salt Lake City, Utah. They will not start ACCAC play until Feb. 20 at Arizona Western in Yuma. Similar to last year, Central, Arizona Western, South Mountain and Cochise figure to be Yavapai's main competition vying for the league title.
"We're trying to start a new season, and that's in the past now," Roughriders star right-handed closer Pulama Silva said in regard to last spring's playoff debacle. "It was a tough loss, but it's been a long way since then. It's a whole new team with different players. The only thing I don't want is for us to get a little overconfident like we did last year. I want to be humble about it."
To a point, shortstop/third
baseman Cam Schiller, one of only two returning starters, concurred. YC won't take on Central until a March 13 doubleheader in Coolidge.
"Everybody goes and plays summer ball, and we try and restack every year, so it's fairly easy to get that out of our minds for the time being," he said. "But I know as soon as we come back and play them it will get pretty fresh."
'Riders second baseman/ shortstop Ty Forney said the Central setback might end up being more of a blessing than a curse.
"If anything, it's motivation for us to work hard and make sure it doesn't happen to us again," he said. "No one likes to lose the last game of the season on their own field."
Just four years ago, the Roughriders captured the national runners-up trophy at the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo. The memories remain fresh for Yavapai coach Sky Smeltzer, now in his 15th season.
"Our roster has as much depth as I've ever had here," Smeltzer said from practice Tuesday. "It might be the most talented team as I've ever had, too, but I don't know if we're a great team, like we had in 2006. It's a process."
YC returns Silva of Kaneohe, Hawaii, who led the national junior college ranks with 19 saves this past season, as well as Schiller, formerly of Prescott High fame, and Forney.
Forney, one of Yavapai's most consistent hitters in 2009, batted .357 with 38 RBIs and 61 hits, including 13 doubles and four triples in 57 games.
Schiller wasn't too shabby, either, notching a .363 clip with 34 RBIs and 66 hits, along with 16 doubles, in 58 contests.
"We've got a lot of guys who can hit a double and hard singles," said Schiller, who bulked up in the off-season and added 10 pounds to his 5-11, 180-pound frame. "We don't have that guy that's going to come out and hit 10-plus home runs. But we do a pretty good job of staying within ourselves, getting the leadoff guy on, and moving base runners over."
The heart of last year's hitting lineup is gone, including Brett Sowers (.359, team-high 49 RBIs, 23 doubles and 12 home runs), Dominic Piazza (.383, 45 RBIs and 5 HRs) and Bobby Rinard (.350, team-best 76 hits, 39 RBIs). But with the likes of talented sophomore outfielder DeMarcus Tidwell (6-3, 180) leading off, Farney in the two-hole and Schiller at No. 3, Smeltzer's confident the club will be OK.
"We'll figure it out after that," the coach said of his starting roster. "We'll go with several different lineups at first to see where we are."
Silva, who will pitch for the University of Arizona in 2011, said he is unfazed by the lineup losses. This year, the Roughriders are faster on the base paths and plan to play more "small ball" rather than rely on a few power guys to produce runs on extra-base hits.
"Hitting-wise, our team is ridiculous," he said. "This is the best hitting team I've ever played for. Everyone can hit and drive in runners."
Added Schiller, "We've got a lot of depth. We've got two legitimate squads we could run out there and compete with anybody in our league. I know that for a fact."
Four starters on YC's solid pitching staff from 2009 are no longer around, either, including Merrill Kelly (10-1 record, 1.48 ERA, 97.1 IP, 88 Ks) and Rick Anton (9-4, 3.10 ERA, team-best 105 Ks).
However, this is one area where Smeltzer doesn't appear to be panicking. He signed a pair of strong NCAA Division I transfers in right-handers Dustin Hobbs (Kansas State) and projected ace Tyler Bremer (UC-Davis) over the off-season, and he likes the eight-man unit he has.
"Tyler throws in the 90- to 92-mph range and he has a great breaking ball," Smeltzer said.
The coach also signed 6-foot-4, 190-pound righty James Dykstra, who possesses a 93- to 94-mph fastball, as a late reliever. Freshmen Alex Miranda, Joseph Hollowell and Gaige McKeon are the lone southpaws. In 2009, Yavapai went only about five-deep.
"On the other hand, there's no experience, other than Silva," Smeltzer said.
Nonetheless, the current depth would appear to bode better in a three-game playoff series, provided YC advances that far.
"Last year, our staff was unbelievable, but we have filled in every spot just as well," Silva said.
Added Schiller, "Our pitching should perform as well as last season, as long as we stay healthy."
A starter in high school, Silva has adjusted well to the closing role at YC with the guidance of Smeltzer and assistant coach Brandon Bailey. His low three-quarter arm angle makes his fastball sink and deceives hitters.
"I would expect nothing but more filthy innings from him," Schiller said. "He consistently comes out and gets people out."
An off-speed pitcher clocked in the 88- to 89-mph range, Silva primarily relies on a signature curve, while mixing in sliders and sinking fastballs. He also tosses a changeup, which he learned last spring and helps him against left-handed batters.
"Last year I was more of a thrower, and now I'm training myself to be more of a pitcher," said Silva, who increased his velocity by 3 or 4 mph in the off-season. "I was so successful because I threw balls in the strike zone, but I didn't know where they were going. I'm becoming more of a pitcher who hits his spots, plans and thinks ahead."
Yavapai, which has been practicing at Bradshaw Mountain High School's baseball field this week, will begin the 2010 campaign with seven straight games on the road.
Smeltzer said Roughrider Park in Prescott remains under several inches of snow from this past week's brutal winter storms. YC was supposed to host Southern Nevada CC next Thursday and Friday, but will play in Las Vegas instead because of the home field conditions.
The 'Riders will start Hobbs on the mound in Friday's season opener and sophomore righty Riley Welch in the nightcap at Salt Lake. Bremer and freshman right-hander Casey Upperman of Scottsdale expect to start in Saturday's double dip at Southern Nevada.
YC won't return home until Feb. 11 and 12 against Eastern Utah CC.
"Having our homes games switched to the road early is not a bad thing," Schiller said. "We get to go to Phoenix and Las Vegas when it's not so hot there. And toward the end of the season we get our home games back. That could help us."
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