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Juco : : Rankings
San Jac Climbs To No. 1 JUCO Spot
Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

With a star-studded roster that includes catcher Bryce Harper, the projected No. 1 selection in this year’s draft, and a pitching staff that could produce 5-6 picks in the top 10 rounds, the College of Southern Nevada has understandably been in the national spotlight all spring.

The Coyotes began the 2010 season ranked No. 1 in the National Junior College Athletic Association rankings (which are compiled by PG Crosschecker), but with four consecutive losses a week ago to state rival Western Nevada, which contributed to their 38-10 season record, they have been ranked No. 4 in the latest Top 25.

(EDITOR’s NOTE: PG Crosschecker also compiles a separate, all-inclusive ranking of the nation’s Top 50 junior-college teams).

The new No. 1 team in the junior-college ranks is Texas’ San Jacinto College, which began the season at No. 2. With 19 wins in their last 20 games, the Gators pushed their record to 37-7.

Interestingly, San Jac has upstaged CSN on the strength of a pitching staff that has been even more dominant than the Coyotes’ talented staff. And the dominance has happened even as the Gators have lost two of their top arms from 2009 to season-ending injuries.

Righthander Tommy Collier (13-1, 2.47 in 2009) went 2-0, 0.00 with 28 strikeouts in 22 innings over four starts this season, but was shut down with lingering elbow soreness and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery. Lefthander David Rollins (8-3, 4.36 in 2009) was shelved with a shoulder dislocation on his non-throwing side that will require surgery. He was 1-0, 3.52 with 34 strikeouts in 23 innings before going to the sidelines.

San Jac, though, has hardly skipped a beat with the loss of two key arms. On a staff that has posted a 2.16 ERA (Southern Nevada’s team ERA, by contrast, is 2.61 – against wood, no less), freshman lefthander Miguel Pena (10-1, 1.24, 65 IP/64 SO) has stepped in as the ace, while sophomore lefthander Sean Nolin (9-0, 2.31, 58 IP/66 SO) and sophomore righthander Chris McKenzie (5-1, 2.39, 49 IP/50) have effectively replaced Collier and Rollins as starters. Sophomore righthander Clay Schrader (0-0, 2.53, 11 SV, 21 IP/36 SO) has been a stabilizer for the Gators in the bullpen.

All the San Jac pitchers should be significant factors in the draft, though probably not to the degree that Southern Nevada’s stable of hard-throwing arms will be. Pena, a fifth-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2009, is expected to be the first San Jac player drafted, roughly in the same area he was taken a year ago. He has generally worked in the 87-90 mph range this spring, topping at 92.

Schrader, a transfer from Texas-San Antonio, is a former starter whose stuff has seen a significant spike this spring in a short role. His fastball has been a steady 92-94 mph, while the velocity on his slider, his best pitch, has jumped to 86-87. He also has an effective curve in the low 80s, giving him three solid pitches. Schrader is also a candidate in the top 5-6 rounds.

Nolin, who attended high school in New York, and McKenzie, who is from Massachusetts, should be taken sometime after the first 10 rounds. With regular work, both have improved the high-end velocity on their fastballs this spring, Nolin to 92, McKenzie to 94.

Another San Jac arm, sophomore righthander Mark Herrera, has also bumped up his fastball to the low-90s, topping at 94, and is earning increasing attention from scouts, even as his workload on a deep staff has been limited. It’s unclear how the injuries to Collier and Rollins will impact their draft status, but they are also expected to be selected in the later rounds. That would put at least seven Gators pitchers in line to be drafted.

So for all the attention the Southern Nevada pitchers have gotten this spring, it’s apparent that San Jacinto has an elite staff of its own and could end up having nearly as much influence in the draft.

The Gators’ success this season has occurred even as they have not gotten anywhere near the same production out of two of their two biggest bats from a year ago, first baseman Deric Hawkins (.402-22-66) and shortstop Ryan Burnaman (.368-13-64). Hawkins is hitting just .318 with three homers, while Burnaman is batting .273-2-25. Hawkins went undrafted in 2009, despite his big season, while Burnaman, a superior defender at shortstop, was a late-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles.

But for San Jac and its rich baseball tradition, it’s always been about pitching – going back to the days when Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte pitched there. And if the Gators have designs on carrying their new-found No. 1 ranking forward to the seventh national title in school history, it almost certainly will again be all about pitching.