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Monday, February 09, 2009

Chipola Knocks Off St. Pete in JUCO Showdown

Allan Simpson        

With a tournament that had a round-robin format, Sunday’s final game of the five-team Chipola/Rahal-Miller JUCO National Classic, played in Marianna, Fla., wasn’t designed to be the championship game. But it worked out that way as Florida juco powers Chipola and St. Petersburg entered the game with 3-0 records.

Chipola, the host team and PG Crosschecker’s No. 6-ranked club, hung on to beat No. 13 St. Pete, 5-4, surviving a last-inning, bases-loaded jam.

Almost all of the 50-some scouts who attended the three-day event, which featured five of the nation’s elite junior-college programs, weren’t around at the end to see Chipola close out St. Pete and finish with a 4-0 record. They weren’t interested in the tournament’s final result so much as they were in the performance of some of the nation’s best junior-college talent. In all, there were 19 pitchers in the tournament who were ranked in PG Crosschecker’s pre-season ranking of the top 250 JC prospects.

No one pitched more effectively than St. Pete righthander Ryan Weber, the nation’s No. 2-ranked juco prospect. He worked the first five innings of St. Pete’s 8-0 win over the College of Southern Nevada, walking none and striking out eight. He didn’t allow his first hit until the fifth inning.

PG Crosschecker’s Anup Sinha was one of the many scouts who attended the tournament, and he will have a complete rundown on Weber and some of the other top prospects he saw at the event.

St. Pete coach Dave Pano, meanwhile, was glowing in his praise of Weber, a freshman who was drafted in the 12th-round last June by the Philadelphia Phillies. Weber is not overly physical at 6-feet and 170 pounds, and doesn’t light up the radar guns like other top pitching prospects, “but he’s a strike thrower and he really competes,” Pano said. “He’s capable of touching 90, but it’s his pinpoint accuracy that sets him apart.”

In his two starts to date, Weber has been on a 65-pitch count. He is 2-0 and has not allowed a run or walked a batter in 10 innings. He blanked Chipola, the 2007 Junior College World Series champion, on two hits through five innings a week earlier when the two teams squared off in a three-game series in St. Petersburg, with St. Pete winning two of three.

A second St. Pete pitcher, sophomore righthander Jack Wagoner, also is 2-0 and has not walked a batter in his first two starts, either. Like Weber, he beat Chipola the previous weekend, and followed up with a 7-3 win over No. 1-ranked Walters State (Tenn.), striking out six in six innings. Wagoner, a Division I transfer from Connecticut’s Sacred Heart, has been clocked up to 94 mph.

Walters State, the 2006 national champion, took it on the chin over the weekend, losing all four games it played. The Senators pitching staff—featuring two of the nation’s best arms in sophomore lefthander Chad Bell and sophomore righthander Trent Rothlin—gave up 40 runs in their four losses. Bell was roughed up for seven runs in 3-1/3 innings of a 12-5 loss to Chipola, though several runs were unearned as Walters State struggled defensively throughout the weekend.

Texas’ San Jacinto JC, a five-time former national champion and ranked No. 7 in the pre-season, also participated in the star-studded event. It went 1-3.

Junior-college baseball has gotten a jump start on the NCAA Division I season, which doesn’t begin until Feb. 20, and several of the same teams that participated in the Chipola/Rahal-Miller National Classic will gather again next weekend in another national-level junior college showcase in Las Vegas. Besides host Southern Nevada, other teams in the six-team tournament are Chipola, St. Pete, San Jacinto, Southern Idaho and Fullerton (Calif.).

Our first in-season ranking of the nation’s top 25 junior-college teams will take place following that event.

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