OCC slugger Wagaman trusts in himself and is rewarded

Eric Wagaman glides to the batter’s box with stealth-like purpose, thinking to himself that he is on the better side of a mismatch.

He is most often correct.

Even when others doubted that such confidence was appropriate, the Orange Coast College sophomore first baseman somehow trusted there were great things for him on the diamond.

It was this belief in himself, in the face of snubs from Division I recruiters, that prompted the courage to choose OCC over a scholarship to Chico State, following his senior season at Aliso Niguel High.

It was not a popular decision, even in his own living room.

“My mom [Julie] freaked out a little bit,” Wagaman recalled of his choice to give himself another opportunity to land a Division I scholarship. “She asked me ‘What if something happens [at OCC] and you can’t go to another university?’ I said, ‘So be it,’ but I just want to give myself another shot. I did not want to ever look back and regret [going to Chico State].”

That decision appeared sketchy in 2016, when Wagaman hit .214 in 56 at-bats as a freshman, with one home run, seven RBIs, and a lot of idle time on the bench.

“The game sped up for me,” Wagaman said. “I started the season in the lineup, but when I had a couple bad games, I was taken out of the lineup. I didn’t really know how to deal with that, because I had been in the lineup my whole life. That’s when my confidence went down and it was tough to get it back.”

Wagaman’s swag returned last summer, when he blasted seven homers and collected 46 RBIs and was named Player of the Year in the Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas Collegiate Summer League.

Heading into the second game of a best-of-three sectional series at home against No. 5-seeded El Camino, on Saturday, Wagaman is a big reason the Pirates (36-10) won the Orange Empire Conference and earned the No. 1 seed in the Southern California regional playoffs.

The Pirates are one win away from heading to the four-team state tournament in Fresno to bid for the program’s third state title in four seasons.

He is hitting .339 and leads the top-seeded OCC in homers (14), RBIs (49), hits (59), doubles (13) and slugging (.655). He tied a school record with three dingers in a game at Canyons on Feb. 28. He belted two more big flies against Fullerton on April 16 and he has had at least one hit in 37 of his 45 games.

In a three-game Super Regional playoff series against Santa Ana completed Sunday, Wagaman was six for 12 with five RBIs and one towering home run.

“He went out and had a good summer,” OCC Coach John Altobelli said. “He came back and got it going [in the fall] and as soon as the uniforms went on, he hasn’t stopped. It has been fun to watch his progression and he hasn’t really slumped all year. He’ll be a guy I nominate for the Big Stick award in the state, with the year he is having with his RBIs and home runs.”

The 6 feet 4, 210-pound Wagaman, who chose baseball over street hockey as a sophomore in high school, garnered recruiting attention from San Diego, San Jose State, Kansas State and Houston. He committed to Houston recently, realizing his Division I dream.

“The difference in my confidence from last year to this year is crazy,” Wagaman said. “I gained it during the summer. I wasn’t getting Division I looks [at Aliso Niguel], but I knew I could play Division I. It was tough to pass up a scholarship and an opportunity to go to [Chico State] and have it paid for. But I wanted to give myself a shot to play Division I, because I felt I was kind of overlooked.”

Wagaman said he trusts in his talent, which he believes will allow him to pursue an opportunity in professional baseball.

“I feel like no one was expecting to me to play professional baseball, so I need to prove I can,” Wagaman said. “I feel I can succeed at it, too.”

His mother is among the growing legions of believers.

“She’s definitely happy about me going to Houston,” Wagaman said.

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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