Central Arizona College is 1 win from JUCO baseball title

The Central Arizona College baseball team was rolling through the field at the junior college world series when it tripped over the Catamounts, just short of the championship game.

CAC had beaten the Potomac State Catamounts earlier in the week, 12-2, but got caught looking past them a second time Thursday.  The 11-3 loss to Potomac State was the Vaqueros’ first at the NJCAA D-I JUCO World Series, which began last Saturday.

But the No. 1 junior college team in the country stepped back up to the plate last night, removing the Catamounts from their path to the championship game tonight.  The Vaqueros will take on Navarro College from Texas, the No. 3 team in the nation, for its attempt at the program’s first national championship in almost a decade.

(*Update:  Looks like Central Arizona will have to wait at least another year before trying on the national crown.  They lost last night to Navarro, 6-4.)

Both teams have a loss in the double-elimination tournament in Grand Junction, Colo., so tonight’s game is a winner-take-all event.

CAC, located midway between Phoenix and Tucson, has been a baseball powerhouse year-in and year-out.  The Vaqueros own three national titles, the last coming in 2002 when Clint Myers was the head coach.

Right now, Myers is guiding the Arizona State softball team through the Women’s College World Series as the head coach of the No. 1 softball team in the nation.  His former assistant, Jon Wente, is now continuing the winning tradition at Central Arizona.

The last two games with Potomac State have been a tit-for-tat duel, with Potomac run-ruling Central Arizona, winning the game, 11-3, in just eight innings.  And then CAC returned the favor by winning the second meeting in just six innings.

In the first game, the Catamounts took an early 2-1 lead and then piled it on in the sixth inning to leave CAC with an 8-1 hole they couldn’t escape.  The Vaqueros got seven scattered hits and gave up eight strikeouts to Potomac’s starter, Andy Smithmyer.

But that slap in the face was enough to wake up the sluggish Vaquero bats in the second game, as CAC built a 4-0 lead in the first inning, thanks in large part to a three-run home run down the left field line by Willie Johnson.

In the third, the Vaqueros erupted for four more runs as Nick Carrillo started it off with a solo homer, and then Travis Lane and Keenyn Walker added a triple each.

The 10-run rule kicked in when CAC plated three more runs in the bottom of the sixth.  The whole thing was eerily reminiscent of the previous game, but with CAC doing the scoring.

Johnson finished the game with a 3-for-4 performance at the plate that included five RBIs and two runs scored.  Cody Gray took the win on the mound, his second of the tournament, striking out five in the six innings played.

Tonight’s championship game will be the second time Central Arizona (56-14) and Navarro (44-17) have met in the tournament.  CAC won the first encounter, 11-8.

If the finale is anything like the first meeting of the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the nation, it will be a fan’s delight.  In Wednesday’s game, the two teams combined for 19 runs and 23 hits, as the lead changed hands a total of five times.

Walker again had the big bat for the Vaqueros, hitting a double in the third inning and smashing an inside-the-park home run in the seventh.  Walker, Carrillo, Jordan Weymouth, and Mark Shannon combined for eights hits and five RBIs.

Walker, a switch-hitting sophomore outfielder, is from Salt Lake City, Utah.  But more than half of the CAC roster is made up of Arizona athletes, many who don’t receive offers from the state’s four-year schools out of high school, but use the JUCO route to improve their game/grades and eventually work their way onto a university roster.

But they have given the small two-year college just outside Casa Grande enough talent to make a post-season run on a regular basis.  CAC was hitting .343 as a team going into the JUCO World Series, with a pitching staff sporting a combined ERA under 2.00.

And now all that’s left is one more win, and they’ll all be able to add a national championship to their resumes.