The second season is here for the Western Nebraska Community College baseball team as they get ready to host the Region IX tournament beginning Thursday and running through Saturday at Cleveland Field.
The Cougars, who captured their first Empire Conference title on Sunday, will open play as the No. 1 seed and face No. 4 McCook Community College at noon on Thursday. The other first-round game Thursday has No. 2 Trinidad State Junior College battling No. 3 Northeastern Junior College at 3 p.m.
The double-elimination tournament continues through Saturday with the winner advancing to the District Finals next week in Arizona.
WNCC coach Mike Jones said the team is excited for the regional tournament, especially playing at home.
“It will be a big advantage. Our home record was really good this spring,” Jones said. “The guys are comfortable. We know the backgrounds. We know the field. We know the surroundings. Home is home so it definitely will be an advantage for us.”
WNCC won the Empire Conference for the first time in school history with a 23-13 conference mark. WNCC was 15-3 at home and 8-10 on the road in conference play. The Cougars enter the tournament with a 28-28 mark.
Jones said what makes this team stand out is their attitude.
“We are extremely proud of what they got accomplished in the 36 games in league play,” Jones said. “Having that kind of consistency, that kind of dedication, and that kind of drive, I am really proud of this team. They are outstanding people. Their work ethic is great. Their team unity is outstanding. The overall character is what stands out.”
WNCC’s road to the Region IX title won’t be easy as any team is capable of winning on any given night. The games, too, will be nine inning games instead of the usual seven innings.
Trinidad State, who has won the last three regional titles, enters with the best overall record at 28-23. The Trojans finished 22-14 in conference play, including splitting a six-game series with Miles Community College in the team’s final games of conference play. Trinidad earned the No. 2 seed and will play NJC, who enter with a 28-23 overall record.
WNCC’s first-round opponent, McCook, has a 27-24 record and earned the fourth spot over Lamar Community College. McCook and Lamar tied for fourth, but the Indians beat five of six times to earn the tiebreaker.
WNCC’s opener with McCook will be a battle. WNCC has beat McCook four out of the six conference games. The last time the two Nebraska schools faced each other was last Friday when the two split a doubleheader. McCook won the first game 9-2 before WNCC captured the second game 8-4.
Jones said for the Cougars to do well, they need to minimize mistakes.
“The one thing we have to understand is we won’t play perfect,” Jones said. “We will make mistakes and if we make some mistakes we need to be able to handle them with a mature attitude and rally back together. We need to overcome whatever mistakes they make and stay positive throughout all the games we will play.”
WNCC enters the tournament as a team that has plenty of offensive weapons. The Cougars are batting .260 as a team led by Alex Achtermann with a .384 batting average. Ryan Grasser is right behind with a .303 average. Grasser has also hit five home runs along with two other Cougars, Brandon Bachar and Stuart Eurich, lead the team.
WNCC has hit 68 doubles, nine triples and 30 home runs as a team this season.
In just conference games, WNCC has four players hitting above .300. Achtermann hit .369 in conference play followed by Ethan Howell at .333, Brandon Maher at .322, and Grasser at .304. All of Grasser’s home runs have come against conference teams.
The one area that has been clutch for the Cougars this season has been their pitching depth. WNCC has six starting pitchers. WNCC is led by closer Ian Fisher on the mound with a 1.80 earned run average with four saves. Zac Moran, who picked up a big win on Saturday against NJC, had a 3.71 ERA while Jacob Pekol has a 3.82 ERA and 13-4 record. Pekol has also struck out 61 batters including a season-high eight against Otero on April 2.
The tournament continues with three games on Friday and the championship game slated for Saturday at noon. The winners of Thursday’s games will play at noon on Friday, while the losers play at 3 p.m.