40 years ago, the Yavapai baseball team brought its 1st JUCO title back to Prescott
In the spring of 1975, Prescott remained a small city with relatively few options for sports fans. Back then, the upstart Yavapai College baseball team played its home games at Ken Lindley Field east of downtown, where fast-pitch softball reigned supreme.
Under the direction of coach Gary Ward, the Roughriders had great expectations that season, even though the program was a mere 5 years old and didn't yet have its own campus field. (In fact, Yavapai played 26 straight games on the road early in the 1975 season.)
In the first week of April, due in part to bad weather, the Roughriders struggled to fit in much more than an hour and 15 minutes of practice time as they played doubleheaders against Arizona Community College Athletic Conference (ACCAC) foes Glendale and Valley Division leader Scottsdale.
By the end of the month, the Roughriders were no worse for wear, though, as they had swept Scottsdale and nemesis Central Arizona, the State Division leader, and kept cruising into May.
On May 30, 1975, Yavapai won its first NJCAA Division 1 Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado, after upsetting defending national champion Meramec Community College of St. Louis, Missouri.
The Roughriders followed in the footsteps of slightly older Arizona JUCOs, including Phoenix College, Glendale Community College and Mesa Community College, which won national titles in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Ward's 1975 team paved the way for Yavapai's future success as a stalwart JUCO program. Starting Sunday, the Roughriders will be shooting for the program's fourth national championship (1975, 1977, 1993).
The 2015 team won seven straight games in the postseason to reach Grand Junction. The Roughriders, who have a first-round bye, will play their opener at 6:30 p.m. Arizona time on Sunday against Chattahoochee Valley (Alabama). Yavapai needs five consecutive victories at the JUCO World Series to capture the crown.
Forty years ago, the Roughriders were an underdog that flew under the radar.
Pitchers Ed Ribera (12-4 record, 2-0 at World Series) and Don Hanna (18-1, 2-0) were two key components for the 1975 Riders, who won 21 of their last 23 games. Ribera and Hanna combined to throw 39 strikeouts at nationals, with Hanna throwing 24 of them en route to the tournament's most outstanding pitcher award and a spot on the all-tournament team with Ribera.
Ribera threw Yavapai to a pair of victories over Meramec in the national tournament, where YC capped a 14-game winning streak that extended from the regular season into the playoffs.
Yavapai's offense wasn't too shabby either.
The Roughriders scored a total of 41 runs on 52 hits for the tournament, posting wins over No. 4-ranked Iowa Western (ironically the defending national champions and the current No. 1 team in 2015), No. 8 Middle Georgia, and No. 14 Louisburg College, in addition to two against top-ranked Meramec.
Other Riders who earned all-tournament honors that season included first baseman Jaime Lopez (.409 average at the World Series), shortstop Jim Schwanke (.348), Eric Frey (.318) and Joe Romero.
In 2015, Yavapai would like nothing more than to mark the 40th anniversary of its first national championship by winning another one under coach Ryan Cougill.
The current Roughriders have all the pieces to capture a title. Perhaps they can channel a measure of the 1975 team's magic and bring another trophy back to Prescott. We shall see.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-642-7865