Spotlight Will Be on Texas
As 2011 JC Season Set to Begin
The national spotlight has shone on junior-college baseball like never before in the last two years, and it may be a tall task for the 2011 season, which is set to open this weekend, to even remotely approach, let alone match some of the historical accomplishments of 2009 and 2010.
A year ago, the baseball draft witnessed a first when College of Southern Nevada teen prodigy Bryce Harper became the first JC player ever to be selected No. 1 overall.
Two years ago, Howard (Texas) College reeled off a record 57-game winning streak and nearly ran the table as it stormed to its first Junior College World Series title, posting a gaudy 64-1 record overall.
Understandably, those types of accomplishments are extremely rare, on any level, in any sport, and it’s safe to say that expectations for another monumental feat occurring in 2011 at the junior-college level are unrealistic.
But the coming season may still have its share of drama, and even a familiar theme to it as Howard has assembled another powerhouse club and begins play as the No. 1-ranked club in the joint Perfect Game USA / National Junior College Athletic Association Top 50 rankings.
Howard returns several players from last year’s 45-10 squad, which was ravaged by injuries and fell short in its bid to return to Grand Junction, Colo., to defend its national title. The Hawks should get a big shot in the arm this season, in particular, from two of the top four prospects in the junior-college ranks for the 2011 draft in righthanders Derrick Bleeker, a transfer from Arkansas, and Damien Magnifico, a fifth-round pick of the New York Mets in 2009 who missed the 2010 season with a stress fracture in his elbow. Both pitchers were clocked in the 95-97 mph range during the fall.
Expectations are understandably high for Howard, but even Hawks coach Britt Smith is realistic enough to know that 2009 was a fairytale season, never to be duplicated.
“Everyone always wants comparisons to that club,” Smith said, “but that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those players and coaches. That team set the bar at the highest point it has ever been set in college baseball, and it is really not fair to compare our current team to that one.
“But the talent level is similar, and this team may actually be much deeper than we were two years ago. We had very little depth in 2009, except on the mound, and this year’s team has depth at every position, especially on the mound.”
While Howard, with its No. 1 ranking, has an excellent chance to return to the national spotlight, there is no player of Harper’s stature in this year’s draft and it’s highly unlikely that any single player will make national headlines like Harper did a year ago, when he was scooped up by the Washington Nationals and eventually signed to a major-league contract that will pay him at least $9.9 million in bonuses and guaranteed payments.
The 2010 draft was also unique in that Chipola (Fla.) JC infielder LeVon Washington became the first unsigned first-round pick ever to play at the junior-college level and re-enter the following year’s draft. Moreover, had St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC righthander Austin Wood performed last spring like he did during the summer in the Cape Cod League, he might have joined Harper and Washington at the top of the draft board. Wood went in the fourth round to Tampa Bay, and became the highest unsigned JC pick from the 2010 draft to elect not to sign. He chose to enroll last fall at Southern California for his junior year, and projects as a mid-first round pick in 2011.
Until January, it looked like the junior-college ranks might not even have a first-rounder in 2011, but that assessment may have changed overnight when outfielder Brian Goodwin, a projected first-rounder in 2012, elected to drop out of school at North Carolina and enroll at Miami-Dade JC in the wake of being suspended for the entire 2011 season at UNC.
Goodwin instantly became eligible for this year’s draft, and immediately moved to the top of the list among junior-college candidates. He projects as a mid- to late-first-round pick.
Until Goodwin moved into the picture, the junior-college spotlight was expected to shine squarely on Texas this spring. On the accompanying list of the nation’s top 200 junior-college prospects in the 2011 draft class, as compiled by PG CrossChecker, the top five players after Goodwin all hail from Texas, and all are pitchers.
At the top of the heap is Angelina righthander Ian Gardeck, whose fastball was clocked last fall up to 98 mph, and has generally been in the 92-95 range with good arm-side life and sink. Gardeck, an Illinois high-school product, elected to transfer to a junior college after spending his freshman year at the University of Dayton. He subsequently committed to attend the University of Alabama in the NCAA early-signing period.
But Gardeck is hardly the only junior-college arm that drew the scrutiny of scouts in Texas last fall. Among others that prominently surfaced are Howard righthanders Derrick Bleeker, a transfer from Arkansas, and Damien Magnifico, a fifth-round pick of the New York Mets in the 2009 draft who missed his freshman year while recovering from a stress fracture in his elbow. Both pitchers were clocked in the mid-90s last fall.
Navarro righthander Drew Verhagen is yet another new arm on the Texas JC scene. He had shoulder issues as a high-school senior and pitched sparingly as a freshman at Oklahoma last spring, but the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder was also clocked this fall in the mid-90s.
San Jacinto lefthander Miguel Pena, a fifth-round pick of the Nationals in 2009, is also in the mix of high-profile Texas junior-college arms, but does not have the big fastball that others on the list do. Nonetheless, he went 14-2, 2.51 as a freshman ace for the nation’s top-ranked JC team entering last year’s Junior College World Series.
Besides Gardeck, others in the elite crop of Texans who committed in the NCAA early-signing period are Magnifico (Oklahoma) and Verhagen (Vanderbilt). Bleeker weighed options from several prominent NCAA colleges, but elected to wait until the spring signing period.
Not only does Texas have a monopoly on the best talent in the junior-college ranks, but it has more than its share of the best teams. Led by No. 1 Howard, Texas has eight teams in PG CrossChecker’s pre-season Top 50, more than any other state.
Appropriately, San Jacinto is ranked No. 2. In each of the last two years, the six-time national champion Gators finished as the runner-up team at the Junior College World Series, losing to Howard in 2009 and upstart Iowa Western a year ago.
Iowa Western won its first national title a year ago with a roster that didn’t have a single player drafted. In the process, it dismantled the heavily-favored College of Southern Nevada and its star player Harper, who hit .443-31-98 (mostly with wood) as a 17-year-old, and San Jacinto. To put the upset into better perspective, CSN and San Jac each had nine players drafted a year ago.
For the most part, most of the better players in this year’s JC draft crop are four-year transfers like Goodwin, Gardeck, Bleeker and Verhagen, and incoming freshmen. The highest-ranked freshman is Oxnard (Calif.) JC righthander Jesus Valdez, an unsigned fifth-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels in the 2010 draft.
With the highly-publicized and talented Harper leading the way, Southern Nevada was an overriding force at the junior-college level in 2010. But CSN’s impact on both the 2011 season and draft could be scaled back significantly as head coach Tim Chambers has moved on to Nevada-Las Vegas, and his replacement, Chris Sheff, was on the job only four months before being fired amidst allegations of rules violations and mistreatment of players.
Former Green Valley High coach Nick Garritano recently took over the reins, and may need time to rebuild the CSN program, especially with a freshman-dominated club in 2011. Every key Coyotes player from last season has departed, either via the draft or transfer to four-year programs, and a number of players left the program in the fall in the wake of the turmoil that swirled around the program. Unlike a year ago when CSN began the season ranked No. 1, it is ranked No. 29 in PG CrossChecker’s current pre-season ranking.
While controversy has clouded the former school of the No. 1 JC pick in the 2010 draft (Harper), the same is also the case for the highest unsigned junior-college pick in 2010 (Wood) and a team that occupied the No. 1 spot nationally for several weeks a year ago.
Long-time and highly-successful St. Petersburg JC coach Dave Pano was forced to resign late last summer amidst charges of irregularities in the recruitment of players. Pano was later replaced by former Mississippi assistant Rob Francis, but the program may also be hard pressed to be a factor in the short term, like it has been in recent years, as it has been hit with a number of penalties, including loss of scholarships. Several players transferred in the fall from that program, as well, and St. Pete was not ranked in PG CrossChecker’s pre-season Top 50.
In December, long-time Connors State coach Perry Keith was suspended for the 2011 season for a violation of NCAA rules. He has been replaced on an interim basis by former Connors State assistant Cotton Nye. The Cowboys went 50-12 in 2010 and open the 2011 season ranked No. 34.
Florida junior colleges have traditionally had the greatest impact of any state on the draft, and while it appeared they wouldn’t have an elite prospect this year of the magnitude of Washington or Wood, all that changed when Goodwin unexpectedly enrolled at Miami-Dade in January.
Until Goodwin’s arrival, the top-rated prospects in Florida were a pair of four-year transfers drawn to the state from remote locations—Indian River State JC sophomore second baseman Cory Spangenberg, a transfer from Virginia Military Institute, and Chipola sophomore catcher Geno Escalante, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton. Spangenberg signed with Miami in the early period, Escalante with East Carolina.
But as the 2011 junior-college crop has begun to take shape, all eyes will be on Texas.