By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Sun —
They don’t even say Grand. They just say Junction, as in Grand Junction, Colo. — as in the site of the NJCAA World Series.
That tells you a lot about this year’s Navarro baseball team.
Sure, Grand Junction is always there for the Bulldogs, who last made the trip in 2013 and who won it all there in 2011.
But this year’s team is down right serious about the place.
“I think we kind of strayed from Junction last year,” said outfielder Jacob Walker, who missed last year with a shoulder injury. “This year we are more focused on it.”
“That’s the goal, to get to Junction,” added Tate Gillespie, who was an all-conference pitcher last year and returns to take over the top spot in the rotation. “We talk about it every day. Last year we tied the school record for wins, and this year we want to break that record, win the region tournament and get to Junction.”
That’s the plan. The formula? Well, let’s start with a deep pitching staff, a ton of talent returning, one of the best outfields in the country, some young talent, especially in the middle infield, including Corsicana’s Layton Wolver, a two-time All-State shortstop and two-time Daily Sun Golden Circle Player of the Year.
If that’s not enough, the Bulldogs will start the season ranked No. 10 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball.
“It’s good to have expectations,” Navarro coach Matt ‘Pudge’ Podjenski said. “The ranking’s good. It’s how you handle it. We have a good group of guys coming back, and Navarro is a well respected program. The ranking is a testament to the program.
“We had a good year,” he said. “We can draw from that experience. Our goals are always the same every year, to win the conference, win the regional tournament and get to Grand Junction.”
Navarro was almost unbeatable in the Region XIV regular season, going 25-5 to tie the school record last year, and went 39-16 overall. But the Dawgs couldn’t get out of the region tournament to land in Colorado. They had a team batting average of .321 and scored 437 runs in 55 games.
This year’s team might be even better at the plate.
All-conference players Matt Munoz, who hit .350 with three homers, 19 RBIs and 30 runs, Francisco DeJesus, who hit .336 with five homers, 33 RBIs and 45 runs scored, and Robert Salazar, who hit .322 with two homers, 31 RBIs and 28 runs, all return to anchor a Navarro team that brought in a ton of talent.
Walker, who didn’t even play last year, is a huge addition to the lineup, where he brings a big bat, and to the outfield, where he will be part of what is arguably the best defensive group anywhere. Walker has already committed to the University of Oklahoma and he has two years of eligibility left at Navarro.
Josh Ragan, another big-bat, big-glove outfielder, transferred in from Dallas Baptist, and catcher Braden Williams transferred from Texas Tech. Podjenski has high expectations for both and said, “They will be key contributors.
He also expects freshman outfielder Caleb Scires, from Fairfield, to have an impact as well, and freshmen outfielder Tim Bechtold, from Copperas Cove, to join a group that includes Munoz, Ragan and Walker, who is nursing a shoulder injury and won’t play until March.
“We have five or six real good outfielders,” Podjenski said.
He likes his young middle infielders, too. Wolver will likely play in the middle along with freshman Matt Wood, a second baseman from Rockwall Heath, one of the top high school baseball programs in Texas.
“He’s learning a lot,” Podjenski said of Wolver, who seemed to make one dazzling play at shortstop after another while hitting over .500 at Corsicana High School. “I think he’s got a chance to be a leadoff man or hit second. He can handle the bat.”
Overall, this version of the Bulldogs could swing the bats even better than last year’s club.
“Offensively, we have a chance to be a real good club,” he said. “We have some guys who can bang and we have some guys who can handle the bat and can run. We have some versatility. I like our versatility. We can do a lot of things. It’s a good group.”
And a smart group. The Bulldogs have a team GPA of 3.39, and to a man they have the kind of baseball instincts and baseball savvy it takes to win at this level. That’s another reason why Navarro’s defense has the promise to be special this season.
“I think we really have a great defense,” Gillespie said. “The pitchers know the outfielders are going to go get it, and I like the young guys in the middle.”
“I think the young guys have really done well,” he said. “We’re going to be strong in the middle and I love the outfielders we have. Our outfield is loaded.”
The pitching staff could be the team’s biggest weapon, because of the depth of talented arms. Navarro has always had good pitching, but this year’s staff has enough good arms to weather the storms of the grueling region tournament, where games pile upon each other and you need a lot more than one or two aces at the top of the rotation.
“This is probably the most depth we’ve had,” said Podjenski, who will be counting on Gillespie, who was 5-0 last year, Brandon Ivey, who was 3-2 with three saves, and Gary Watkins, who was 3-2. Both Ivey and Watkins were in the bullpen, but they will move into the rotation.
“Those guys will have to step up in bigger roles,” Podjenski said. “We have a lot of quality. We just don’t have that one guy. I think they will do it, and we have some freshmen coming in this year who will pitch for us.”
Podjenski likes his new freshmen arms, including Ivan Ulloa, a lefty from El Paso.
The Bulldogs also brought in a freshman closer, and unlike in some recent seasons where a committee ended up deciding the final innings, this year Podjenski feels he has a true closer in Asher Cook, a freshman from Austin Lake Travis.
Cook is the son of former big league reliever Dennis Cook, who was one of the top situational left-handers in all of baseball and a key member of the 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series. Ironically, Asher is a right-hander, but he took a lot from his talented father.
“He’s got that pedigree,” Podjenski said. ”There’s something different about them, the ones who come from that bloodline.”
He’s happy to have a lockdown closer.
“Since I’ve been here this is the first time we have had a bonafide closer,” Podjenski said.
It could be the right mix for a magical season, a deep pitching staff, versatile offense with some highlight tape defense and a dugout full of confidence.
And the same goal — Junction.
It would be grand if they get there.