Faulkner: Pirates hit their number

If you see a celebratory team picture of the 2014 California Community College Athletic Assn. state baseball champions, those are not double peace signs the Orange Coast College players and coaches are flashing.

After winning the program's fifth state crown, its second in six seasons, on Monday at Fresno City College, the Pirates wasted little time honoring the memory of Jourdan Watanabe, a former All-Orange Empire Conference catcher who died during OCC's 2009 state championship season.

Watanabe's father, Kent Watanabe, who was a first-year assistant coach this season, brought the No. 22 jersey hanging in the dugout out for one team picture and players and coaches mugged with both hands flashing two fingers, to signify 22.

It was also season No. 22 at the OCC helm for Coach John Altobelli, whose daughter wore an Orange No. 22 OCC jersey in the stands.

Altobelli keeps Jourdan Watanabe's legacy alive and sometimes gets choked with emotion when talking about his former player, whom he first saw as a young boy in the Irvine neighborhood they then shared. Altobelli told Kent way back then that one day he would bring Jourdan to OCC to play for him.

After the Pirates defeated San Joaquin Delta, 5-3, to clinch the state crown and cap their season-ending winning streak at 15, Altobelli spoke to his players, as well as their family members and supporters, in the outfield grass.

"Having Kent out here is awesome," said Altobelli, who has guided OCC to the four-team state tournament five times, including four in the last 10 years. "The power of the 22 is everywhere. I told you guys what a special year No. 22 was going to be for me [in their first team meeting of the season]. Did I not tell you that?

"I tell you right now, the [championship] ring is going to have a big 22 right on the front, with an OCC in the center of it. I have a few designs in my head, and I hope you guys don't mind the ring being about this big [cupping his hands together as if conforming to the shape of a grapefruit]."

•The No. 22 is also the sum of games won by sophomore identical twin pitchers David (11-1) and Jacob (11-0) Hill, who pitched through injuries — a sprained ankle and a sore forearm, respectively — to win the final two games in Fresno.

"Wow! Storybook," said David Hill when reminded of the combined win total of the two Orange Empire Conference Co-Pitchers of the Year.

Jacob Hill became only the third pitcher in OCC history to earn double-digit wins without a loss, joining Jerry Newman (14-0 in 1962) and Jim Newkirk (13-0 in 1957).

The Hill brothers' 11 wins mark only the fifth and sixth time in the last 58 seasons that an OCC pitcher has topped 10 wins, the last time being 2012, when Brandon Brennan went 11-1.

•Altobelli, typical of the feel-good atmosphere that has come to characterize his approach to coaching, made sure his players had ample time to savor the postgame vibe on Monday.

"Let's hang out," Altobelli told his players and their families and friends. "Let's take some pictures of the trophy and let's make some Christmas cards today. We're in no hurry to get out of here, so get yourself some hugs and shed some tears, and then we'll get on the bus and head home."

•The Pirates (36-9) had much to celebrate in 2014, including tying the 2012 state tournament team for No. 2 in single-season victories, behind the 37 wins posted by the 2009 state champs, who also defeated San Joaquin Delta in the final in Fresno.

OCC became the first team to win nine playoff games (the format was expanded to four rounds this season) and they also became the first team to go 9-0 in the postseason.

•Some individual milestones include sophomore shortstop Cody Nulph's state-leading 75 hits. He batted .414 for the season and ended the year on a 30-game hitting streak. Nulph, a bounce-back from Pepperdine who will play next season at Auburn, was five for 10 in Fresno.

Nulph's batting average ranked third in the state this season and made the OEC Player of the Year No. 2 on the OCC career list (minimum 150 at-bats). Only major league veteran Donnie Murphy (.422 in 2002), now an infielder with the Texas Rangers, had a better career average at OCC.

Nulph has been named Player of the Year in the state, while David and Jacob Hill, as well as freshman right fielder Tommy Bell are also first-team all-state honorees.

Sophomore center fielder Cody Bruder joined the all-state honorees on the All-Southern California team.

•Sophomore first baseman Chris Iriart, who had five runs batted in in Fresno, including the game-winning RBIs in wins over Delta on Sunday (a two-run homer) and Monday (a two-run single), finished the season with a state-leading 10 home runs. His 48 RBIs ranked No. 2 in the state this season and he finished with a .316 average.

Iriart, bound for the University of Houston, made a huge jump from his freshman campaign, when he hit .227 with no extra-base hits and five RBIs in 44 at-bats. Iriart's 10 home runs topped the total produced by 70 of the 86 California community college teams this season.

•Bruder's 11 career triples tied the school record shared by two others and his eighth triples this season were one shy of the school standard set in 1963 by former major league outfielder and Newport Harbor High product Bill Voss.

•OCC finished tops in the state in staff earned-run average (1.87), was second with 24 team homers, and ranked No. 7 in team batting average (.305).

•Altobelli said he expects both Hills, Nulph and possibly Iriart to be selected in the Major League draft in June.

•In the last seven seasons, Altobelli has guided the Pirates to a 215-88 record, a .710 winning percentage. He will, once again, be the head coach for the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League this summer.

•Three regulars are set to return next season, as well as state tournament MVP Art Vidro, who went 4-0 on the mound in the postseason to finish 8-3 with a 2.22 ERA in 73 innings.

Bell (.384 with five homers and 39 RBIs), third baseman Jake Thumm and left fielder Robert Longtree are also expected back.

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