COOLIDGE, Ariz. – A first-time visitor to the Central Arizona College (CAC) main campus might be simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed, if that is even possible. The junior college of about 3,800 full-time students (more than 12,000 part-time) is located in the Arizona desert about equa-distance from Phoenix to the north and Tucson to the south.
Its layout of tan, sandstone style buildings lie at the foot of a hulking mountain, for lack of a better word, that is dotted with saguaro cactus reaching up toward the sky. The campus buildings fit neatly into the desert landscape, and the nearly 30 players listed on the CAC baseball team roster feel it’s the right fit for them, as well.
No big-city lights. No disruptive bar scene that might be found at Arizona State University up in Tempe or the U of Arizona down in Tucson. Only mellowing desert days and nights that seem to regenerate souls both young and old, and offer a lot of first and second chances to some of the country’s top young baseball prospects.
“This is a good place for the right person because it’s away from everything and the distractions aren’t out there,” CAC ninth-year head coach Jon Wente told Perfect Game during a conversation at the Vaqueros’ on-campus baseball field before the first game of a double-header the morning of March 14.
“They can focus on the classroom, they can focus on the baseball field, they can focus on getting stronger, and they don’t have to worry about all the big distractions,” he said. “It makes for a good place to be for the right people.”
A good place, indeed, for young guys seriously interested in taking their baseball skills to the next level. Is this Gainesville, Fla.? Is it Chapel Hill, N.C.? Is it Columbia, S.C., or Baton Rouge, La., or Nashville, Tenn., or any of the other homes of the top programs in NCAA Division I baseball? Of course it isn’t.
But this is the home of one of the best National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) programs in all the land, and the players wear their CAC Vaquero baseball uniforms with as much pride and carry as many expectations as any player on a D-I roster in the country. This year’s CAC team is ranked No. 20 in the most recent PG National Junior College Top 25 rankings.
“Every season you just want to progress and get better by the end of the year and be playing your best baseball,” Wente said before his club played its non-conference double-header against New Mexico Junior College and Miles (Mont.) Community College March 14.
“We’ve done some nice things but we still have a ways to go to get better, and you want to continue to get better and play your best baseball into April and into May,” he said. “We’re certainly not there yet but we’re still working on it and hopefully we can get there.”
THE CENTRAL ARIZONA COLLEGE ROSTER CONSISTS OF PROSPECTS FROM 10 STATES. That, of course, doesn’t tell the half of it. Not only are there players from as far away as Miami, Fla., and Kapolei, Hawaii, but spots are filled by players from Caracas, Venezuela; Vancouver, British Columbia and Delhi, Ontario.
Carlos Rodriguez is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore left-hander from Kapolei, Hawaii, who the Atlanta Braves selected in the 20th round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft. Rodriguez, an alumnus of the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase, opted to honor his commitment to Oregon State, where he spent the last two years. When that didn’t work out as planned, he made his way south to CAC.
“I decided to come over here because it’s a winning program,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone wants to win here and I wanted to be a part of this program and part of that legacy. The history behind the program, the coaches and everything involved with the players and how well they treat them and the respect that they have here,” is what is most appealing, he said.
Rodriguez, the No. 67-ranked juco prospect in the country, has been around a little bit. He’s a little bit older than his teammates. Has acclimation to the program been a problem?
“This is like a melting pot over here; everyone knows each other,” he said. “Once you get to know each other, everyone’s the same person. Everyone has the same goals and even if you’re from Venezuela or you’re from Hawaii or from Canada, everyone is here for the same reason. Everyone wants to win; everyone wants to do good for themselves and for the team.”
All the winning the Vaqueros do also appealed to Brock Dykxhoorn, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound right-hander from Ontario, Canada, who Perfect Game ranks as the No. 91 top juco prospect in the country. Dykxhoorn was a 20th round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in the 2012 MLB amateur draft, but didn’t sign.
He had originally committed to CAC out of high school but switched mid-stream and wound up at the University of West Virginia for his freshman year. When things didn’t click in Morgantown, he returned to CAC thanks in large part to a strong relationship with Vaqueros pitching coach Mike Orchard.
“I love it here,” Dykxhoorn said. “The baseball is second to none and we get to play against some pretty good competition, and being in Arizona is perfect. Everybody here wants to win. You come here, you’re expected to win, you want to win and we do win, so I definitely think that’s the biggest appeal. If your team is doing well, individuals are going to get seen a lot more.”
CAC HEAD COACH JON WENTE IS WELL INTO HIS NINTH SEASON this spring as the manager of the Vaqueros program. He took over for the legendary softball and baseball coach Clint Meyers after Myers took the baseball job at Auburn in 2006.
Wente’s experience is extensive, and he’s led the Vaqueros to numerous NJCAA regional championships and league titles. They won NJCAA national championships in 1976 and 2002. This is a program so rich in history that is almost unrivaled on the juco level.
“You’re blessed to have good players, blessed have a great coaching staff – my assistant coaches don’t get paid a whole lot but they work extremely hard – but ultimately it’s the players,” Wente said. “The tradition has helped. I’ve been blessed to take over (for) and follow a guy like Clint Myers who wins everything he does.”
CAC is a member of the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference (ACCAC), a league that includes Arizona Western, Chandler-Gilbert, Cochise, Eastern Arizona, Gateway, Glendale, Mesa, Paradise Valley, Phoenix College, Pima, Scottsdale, South Mountain, Tohono and Yavapai. South Mountain is ranked No. 24 in PG’s most recent National Junior College Top-25 rankings.
The Vaqueros will play nearly 60 regular season games this spring, including 38 ACCAC games.
“We can set up all the practices that we want – and we feel like we have competitive practices – but at the same time, with this game of baseball the only way to get better at it is to play,” Wente said. “We want to play the best teams that we can possibly play. … We want to play and we want to play the best teams because we want to get better, and the only way you can do that is by playing good baseball.”
The Vaqueros swept New Mexico JC and Miles CC to improve to 21-7 this season (they are 10-4 in league play). At least a half a dozen scouts were in attendance for the game against NMJC and other fans slowly filled the stands behind home plate.
Spencer O’Neil, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound sophomore first baseman from Kennewick, Wash., and an alumnus of the 2010 PG National Showcase, went 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBI in the 5-3 win over NMJC, and raised his batting average to .368 with a team-high three home runs. O’Neil was a 33rd round pick of the New York Yankees in 2011 but didn’t sign.
Infielder David Petrino from Springdale, Ark., has also been sound offensively for the Vaqueros this season; through 25 games he was hitting .368 with two home runs, 10 doubles and a team-high 25 RBI. The team’s top starting pitchers have been sophomore right-hander Nicco Blank from Tucson (5-0, 1.35 ERA, 47 Ks, 40 IP) and Dykxhoorn (4-2, 3.74 ERA, 58 Ks, 33 2/3 IP).
SO, WHAT IS IT THAT DRAWS THESE TOP PROSPECTS TO THE ARIZONA DESERT in the first place? What sort of magic elixir does Wente possess that sells the school to the players?
“We’re fortunate in that it sells itself at times, but we sell it on telling (the players) that they’re going to get better, they’re going to move on, they’re going to graduate and we win – and that helps,” Wente said. “We try to focus on just those four things:
“If you get better, we’ve done our job; if we’ve moved you on, whether it be to professional baseball, (NCAA) Division I, Division II, NAIA, we’ve done our job; if you graduate in the classroom, we’ve done our job. And it helps when you win to kind of create those possibilities for these guys.”
And who else does a good job of selling CAC to the country’s top high school prospects? How about the other top prospects that have come before them?
“The guys that have gone on and moved on from here and have gotten the Perfect Game notoriety and have been drafted – having those guys certainly helps,” Wente said. “Those players have paved the way for these guys, and that makes it easier for us to get (the high level) guys. … We try to have our players sell the program as much as (the coaches) sell the program because our players are the ones who have to go through it.”
The most recognizable name on this season’s Vaqueros’ roster belongs to Manny Ramirez Jr., the son of the former 12-time American League All-Star by the same name who slugged the Boston Red Sox to a pair of World Series championships in 2004 and 2007.
Ramirez Jr. is from Miami, Fla., and graduated from the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There just cannot be two more opposite worlds in the universe than Miami, Fla., and Coolidge, Ariz.
“I wasn’t getting enough D-I looks so I started thinking about playing junior college baseball,” Ramirez Jr. said when asked what brought him to this place. “Playing for a spot in Omaha (NCAA D-I College World Series) is pretty great, but I’ve been dreaming about playing professional baseball and this might be a quicker route.
“Central is pretty much the best of the best, so I decided to come here and try to get better and try to win a (NJCAA) national championship in Grand Junction (Colo.).”
Ramirez Jr., a 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman outfielder, is ranked the No. 58 top junior college prospect in the country. He attended the 2012 Perfect Game National Showcase and plans to attend the University of San Francisco after his tenure at CAC ends and if he isn’t drafted. In the meantime, he’s soaking up everything CAC has to offer.
“There are no distractions here and I just focus on what’s the most important, which is baseball and school,” he said. And maybe it’s not really all that different from the so-called “big time”.
“Everyone wants to compete, and you’ve just got to make pitches and you’ve just got to be able to overcome adversity and be able to become one of the tougher guys in the league so you can go out there and win,” said Rodriguez, a veteran of two seasons in the Pac-12.
CAC FIELDS TEAMS IN SIX WOMEN’S SPORTS AND FIVE MEN’S SPORTS and through the years they have combined to win 38 NJCAA national championships. It’s a championship culture cultivated on athletic venues as different as a baseball fields and rodeo arenas.
“It’s a great place because all of the athletes are trying to be the best at their respective sports, “Wente said. “That helps our guys get better because they understand that the people they’re working out with, the people that they live with, the people they’re going to class with, they’re all trying to be the best student-athletes they possibly can be.”
The coaches for every one of those sports face the same challenges that every coach at every community college in the country faces. The reality is those coaches will have their athletes for two years at the most, which means their programs require an ongoing, annual rebuilding job.
“It’s easy to be in junior college and say that’s the challenge,” Wente said. “For us, we’re just going to move on and if we’re doing our job and guys are here for one year, then we’ve done a good job developing them and they’ve done a good job of coming in here and working as hard as they can. It’s the nature of the beast and if you don’t accept it then you’re the guy that’s going to be negative.
“We accept it, we know it’s going to happen, we’re not going to let it bring us down and if we’re fortunate enough to have a guy move on early, then we’re going to go out and try to replace him the best that we can.”
With few distractions and a tunnel vision focus on baseball and books, the people at Central Arizona College have been able to adequately replace all the missing parts year after year.