McLennan Community College has big dreams of reaching the NJCAA World Series for the third time under Mitch Thompson, but its road will be a little tougher than anticipated.
The Highlanders will drop from No. 1 seed to No. 2 at the Region V baseball tournament in San Angelo after learning they had an ineligible player who participated in four North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference games.
MCC forfeited three wins in those four games to drop to second in the NTJCAC standings behind Grayson College. The Highlanders will face seventh-seeded Howard College at 10 a.m. Friday at Community Credit Union Stadium at San Angelo State University while No. 1 Grayson will face No. 8 Odessa College at 5 p.m.
“We found out (Wednesday) that one of our baseball players had withdrawn from a course during the spring semester, and by withdrawing from the course he wasn’t a full-time student anymore,” Thompson said. “Therefore any ballgame he played in after that withdrawal made him ineligible. He withdrew from the class without getting our permission and without talking to us about it. When we found out that he was withdrawing from the class and he was no longer a full-time student, we immediately informed the NJCAA Region V director and our conference commissioner and self-reported the occurrence.”
Thompson declined to name the ineligible player. But the Highlanders (39-15, 24-8) will have plenty of motivation to win the Region V tournament after getting disqualified in the finals of last year’s tournament following a bench clearing incident against Cisco.
No punches were thrown, but both MCC and Cisco were disqualified under NJCAA rules for players leaving the bench. Temple College advanced to the World Series in Grand Junction, Colo. The Highlanders want to be that team this year.
“For the sophomores, we’re way more hungry this year,” said sophomore pitcher Grant Miller. “Going from day one, this (the World Series) is what we’ve been aiming for all year. It’s huge. That’s what we dream about. We watched a video when they were at Grand Junction two years ago, and it’s awesome.”
Miller (6-0, 2.93 ERA) will start the Region V opener against Howard College. MCC’s pitching staff has been strong all season, and Thompson believes the Highlanders have the depth to win four straight games at the Region V tournament and advance to the World Series.
Sophomore right-hander Alex DeLeon and freshman right-hander Tanner Brooks have enjoyed success as starters this year while sophomore left-hander Max Mize and freshman right-hander Jack Driskell have been stalwarts in the bullpen.
“Grant is really a competitor and a warrior on the field for us, so it’s been good,” Thompson said. “We’ve got different ways to win games, but our pitching has been strong for us all year. Our bullpen is a lot of freshmen, but our starting pitching has typically been sophomores for a lot of the year. We’ve got a lot of good arms and guys who can do different things.”
Propelled mostly by freshmen, MCC’s offense has compiled a .302 batting average and has displayed good power with 46 homers.
Leading the way has been Garrett Martin with a .349 average with eight homers and 44 RBIs while Jordan Yeatts has hit .347 with four homers and 34 RBIs. Jalen Battles is hitting .324 with six homers and 38 RBIs while Brett Squires has been the Highlanders’ top power hitter with 10 homers and 43 RBIs.
“Jordan Yeatts has been a real spark plug for us at the top of the lineup,” Thompson said. “Then our next four or five hitters are guys that all have the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark, they all have the ability to hit doubles and drive in runs. The nice thing about it is we haven’t had to rely on one guy. There’s been somebody that’s stepped up throughout the year that has given us the opportunity to be successful.”
The Highlanders played some of their best baseball during a 21-game winning streak. Since then, they’ve gone 7-5, including an 8-6 loss to San Jacinto College in their last game on April 29.
“I feel like right now we’re not playing our best game,” said MCC sophomore third baseman Aidan Shepardson. “Definitely in the last 10-game stretch we’ve struggled a little here and there. We’re not hitting like we should and we’re not pitching like we should. But I’m not concerned with that because I know we’re ready. We’ve had this last week to prepare and we’re going to get after it.”
Despite some NTJCAC losses, the Highlanders believe they’ll benefit from playing in such a tough league.
“Coach Mitch tells us all the time that this is the SEC of JUCO and we believe that,” Shepardson said. “A lot of talent and a lot of teams we play outside our region, that’s a lot of talent too, so we’re definitely prepared for the region and Colorado if we make it.”
During his six seasons as MCC’s coach, Thompson led the Highlanders to a second-place national finish in 2015 before making the World Series again in 2017. From the moment he begins recruiting a player, he says MCC’s goal every year is to get to Grand Junction.
“We’re interested in competing for championships and trying to be the very best, and in our business the very best is in Grand Junction,” Thompson said. “The Grand Junction experience is unbelievable. The town is phenomenal, beautiful setting. They look forward to it year-round, so when that tournament comes it’s like the whole town shuts down and everybody is focused on JUCO. It’s just a lifetime experience and something they’ll never forget.”