Central Arizona College baseball team claims 2nd NJCAA championship in 3 years

Jeremy Beren

Courtesy of Anthony Gilich

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Coolidge, Ariz.) — The Central Arizona Vaqueros avenged their loss in the 2021 NJCAA World Series championship game through clutch hitting, timely pitching, and — in the words of head coach Anthony Gilich — clean baseball.

"That's been our brand the whole year," Gilich told NewsBreak. "We gave up 21 runs in six games in the World Series. That's unreal ... if we're going to give up runs, (the other team) has to earn it."

The Vaqueros ended the 2022 season with 60 wins from 73 games and another National Junior College Athletic Association Division I championship. Gilich's team defeated the Cowley County Community College Tigers 4-2 in Saturday night's showpiece game in Grand Junction, Colo., which saw the baseball program capture its fourth national championship — and its second since 2019.

But Central Arizona's run to the 2022 NJCAA World Series was challenging and dramatic. The Vaqueros had to battle through adversity throughout May and into early June.

"I feel proud. It's a lot of work," Gilich said, speaking a few days after the Vaqueros' title triumph. "This year in particular was extremely hard. We had 10 elimination games. It kind of felt like everyone was gunning for us and saved their best arms for us, always locked in and bringing the energy. As a program, we're pretty proud to be the last team standing."

With 29 wins and 10 losses, Central had the best record in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference, one of the country's toughest. Guided by their experienced pitching staff and explosive offense, the Vaqueros entered the junior college World Series in Colorado as regional and district champions. They overcame Cochise College in a 15-inning marathon on May 14 and followed it up the next week in Utah with a 12-4 thrashing of Salt Lake Community College.

Throughout the postseason, exacting a slice of revenge became a theme for the Vaqueros. Cochise had taken the first game of the three-game regional final series, and Central had to beat Southeastern Community College in order to set up a rematch with Salt Lake in the Western District final.

Then, upon arriving In Colorado, the sixth-seeded Vaqueros suffered a walk-off loss to Crowder College in extra innings. The defeat placed Central in the "loser's bracket" and on the verge of heading home early.

"For the first four games out of the five we had to win, we were coming off a win and our opponent was coming off a loss. We were coming through the loser's bracket the whole way ... they were trying to regroup while we were trying to gain some momentum," Gilich said when asked about his team's psychological edge. "All year we talked about 'Game 7', we put that on our practice plans and on our dugout card. Everybody brings it all. We've been talking about playing that way since the fall. The talk was 'let's practice Game 7s, so if we're ever in an elimination game, it's going to feel a little more normal.'"

After beating the San Jacinto Gators to stave off elimination, Central overpowered Crowder 11-3 in a rematch and advanced to the tournament semifinal after centerfielder Dusty Garcia smacked a walk-off home run to defeat the Wabash Valley College Warriors.

The Vaqueros then rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to top the #1-ranked Walters State Senators 7-4 before winning the final game against the seventh-seeded Cowley Tigers.

Garcia, who played through an injury in Grand Junction, capped the scoring in the championship game with a third-inning solo shot. Four of the nine home runs he hit during the 2022 season came at Sam Suplizio Field.

"He's probably our most dynamic player, with his combination of speed and power ... he did a really good job, especially late in the year, of limiting his strikeouts and putting more balls in play," Gilich said. "And with that came more hits and more homers."

Central completed its latest championship season with a plus-361 run difference, scoring nearly nine runs per game while allowing under four. Right-hander Shane Spencer was the winning pitcher in Saturday's championship game and finished as the team's leader in wins (14), complete games (3), innings thrown (98), and strikeouts (126). Phoenix native Tyler Woessner won 11 games with a 3.55 earned-run average and placed second on the pitching staff with 122 punchouts. Closer Drew Sommers slammed the door against Cowley and registered 92 strikeouts in only 53 innings to go with his team-high four saves.

"Our pitchers throw a ton of strikes, (pitching coach JoJo Howie) does a great job with them," Gilich said. "Our defense was one of the best in the country, (assistant coach Joe Pérez) does a great job with that."

The Vaqueros' leading hitter was Sydney, Australia-born Jaylin Rae, who concluded his breakthrough season with a .372 batting average and 45 runs batted in over 69 games. Utility player and Tucson native Kiko Romero led the Vaqueros in home runs (25), RBI (84), and stolen bases (19). After the championship game, he was named the tournament's outstanding offensive player.

"Kiko went off in the World Series," Gilich said.

Next year's roster is not set yet, with several players gearing up to move to four-year schools or preparing to turn pro if selected in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft. But Gilich and his staff are already on the recruiting trail for 2023, and the championship-level standards will remain in place after three consecutive appearances in the NJCAA World Series title game.

"There were a couple days here when we got back where we could regroup, but there's a lot of tournaments going on now, so we've got to get back to work," he said.

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

Phoenix, AZ

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