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College | Story | 1/21/2020

Reloaded McLennan Tops in JUCO

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Garrett Martin (McLennan Athletics)
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- If you have a Netflix account (who doesn’t at this point?), there is a show produced by the streaming company called ‘Last Chance U.’ It follows a junior college football program for a season, through all the trials and tribulations that a JUCO program has to go through.

It’s extremely dramatized. There’s tons of yelling, throwing things, outbursts. Who knows how much of that is real and how much is made for good television.

The real parts, though, come when the coaches talk about the difficulty of recruiting to a two-year school and the small window of developmental time they get with their players.

It’s tough to build a consistent winner with so much turnover.

McLennan Community College, in Waco, Texas, has found the right recipe for sustained success in junior college baseball. It has a lot to do with the man at the helm, head coach Mitch Thompson.

“It’s a tough thing to do to be consistent in a year-in, year-out basis, just due to the fact that you’re losing half your roster every year,” he said. “You’ve got to keep replenishing and the recruiting never ends.”

The replenishing part, he made sure to emphasize, lands on the shoulders of his coaching staff, who he speaks very highly of.

Those guys are on the road finding the right pieces in a subsection of the sport where recruiting really is king, having such a limited amount of time to mold the guys you get on campus.

“My coaching staff is as talented and hard-working as you can have,” Thompson said. “They really work hard on developing. These guys are all-in. They’re competitive, they work so hard, they can identify talent, and if we can get them here, we can really develop them.”

The Highlanders had a ton of talent last season. The team won 42 games and made it to a regional championship game for the fifth time in six years.

Thompson has this engine rolling, being in charge of one of only seven junior college programs to win 40 or more games in each of the past five years.

However, his 2020 team is his most talented yet. McLennan comes into the year returning its top-four position players, and the roster boasts eight of the top-150 junior college prospects according to Perfect Game, including three of the top-10 in righthanded pitcher Connor Phillips (No. 1 overall), shortstop Jalen Battles (No. 5 overall), and third baseman/outfielder Brett Squires (No. 10 overall).

| Top 150 JUCO PROSPECTS |

All that talent has earned McLennan the No. 1 spot in the Perfect Game preseason poll.

“It’s an interesting ball club, because we lost a lot of our pitching off of last year’s team,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of newcomers there. However, I think the strength of our ball club is on the mound. But at the same time, we returned our top-four position players. Battles, Squires, Garrett Martin, and Cole Moore are those four guys. They all hit in the middle of our lineup last year and played every day as freshmen, and they’ve all signed with major Division I programs.”

The pitching staff, which does welcome some new faces, has reloaded in a way that should more than replace what it lost.

Phillips is the headliner, the big name who has first-round talent. He was the No. 61 overall prospect in the 2019 class, and worked his fastball up to 94 mph when he attended the Perfect Game National Showcase in 2018.

“[Phillips] is an elite talent, for sure,” Thompson said. “He’s not a talent that everybody in the country has. We’re very excited that he’s here, and we just want to fully develop him and help him reach his goal and have him help us reach ours. He’s the kind of player that you just don’t see all the time. This is a high, high level kid.”

Dawson Sweatt is a redshirt freshman on McLennan’s staff, a lefthanded hurler ranked as the No. 21 overall JUCO prospect by PG. He is currently committed to Oklahoma.

Joey Martin is another top-75 JUCO prospect, a sophomore righthanded pitcher. The Comfort, Texas native is committed to Dallas Baptist.

Thompson said he feels good about the amount of talent he will carry with his staff.

“We’ve got 13 guys from this fall that threw at least 90 mph,” he said. “So we have talent to work with, there’s no doubt. I think the reason we can reload like that is because the guys see the success the program has had…Our staff is deep. I don’t ever want to say we’re too deep, because I don’t believe you can ever be too deep on the mound, but we have a lot of talented arms to work with.”

The new pitching staff will of course be backed by those four returning position players – Battles, Squires, Martin, and Moore – all of whom hit at least .286 last year. Battles, Martin, and Moore all hit .313 or better.

Each of the four knocked in at least 42 RBI in 57 team games, and each slugged at least .497 in the process. There are no easy outs among them.

James Crooks (he goes by Jimmy), a freshman from Euless, Texas, will handle that new pitching staff. Crooks is an Oklahoma commit along with Sweatt, and is ranked by PG as a top-100 JUCO prospect as well. Crooks was a member of the All-Tournament Team at the 2018 WWBA World Championship, hitting .400 for the Midland Redskins.

Thompson is well aware of the talent he has. It’s on display every day at practice, where he expects the very best out of his players.

He’s more likely to mention his team’s cumulative GPA (something he is very proud of) than the prospect rankings put on the middle of his lineup.

Beyond the classroom though, when he gets his guys in the baseball facility each day, he puts three goals in their heads.

“We want to get to the World Series and compete to win it all,” Thompson said. “We have three goals every year. We want to win our conference, we want to win the regional tournament, and we want to go to the World Series and win it. We don’t make any bones about that. We’re trying to prepare and get ready for that on a daily basis. The key for me is that you can’t waste days. Each day has to be a championship-level day.”

SEE ALSO: 2020 Preseason JUCO Top 25

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