GCC hoping for encore

After an unprecedented run to the state championships a season ago, Glendale Community College's baseball team is doing its best for an encore. And the first act will begin Saturday at Stengel Field, when the fifth-seeded Vaqueros host No. 12 San Diego Mesa in the first round of the Southern California Regional.

Vaqueros Coach Chris Cicuto's squad began its run to state last season with a similar seeding and hosted a first-round regional, as well. With a healthy mix of returners and newcomers coloring this year's run to a second consecutive Western State Conference South Division title, it's a safe bet that the returners' postseason experience will pay dividends, while contending with the pressure of duplicating last year's historic results.

"I'm gonna guess there's a couple of our sophomores that are feeling some stress to duplicate last year's success, but if we can maintain the mentality that you can't think about Super Regionals before you get through regionals, if we can just worry about those small little battles, we could be back there," said Cicuto on Sunday after the pairings were released. "We're gonna take it pitch by pitch. That's the game plan."

The series opener is set for 1 p.m. Saturday with the second game at 11 a.m. Sunday. A possible third game will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the second contest.

San Diego Mesa (20-15) makes the trek north to face the Vaqueros (25-10) after finishing second in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference. Mesa is coming off a loss to Grossmont in its final game of the regular season, but had won three straight before that.

"They can pitch, similar to us," said Cicuto, who said he doesn't know much about his team's opponent yet, but will quickly begin making phone calls to find out as much as he can. "They've got pretty good arms and their offense is OK.

"It's a good seed for us; we've seen good arms before."

Offensively, Mesa is led by Patrick De La Garza (.316 average, 17 runs, 13 runs batted in, 14 stolen bases) and Justin Esquerra (.302, 24 runs, 16 RBI), but doesn't offer much pop with the team having tallied just three home runs on the season. Chris Tuma leads the pitching staff with an 8-3 record and a 2.75 earned-run average. As a whole, the team boasts a 3.93 ERA, which includes closer Brian Kaye, who has nine saves and a 0.93 ERA.

Sophomore Cory Popham has been outstanding in leading the GCC staff. In 68 1/3 innings, he's struck out 63, while garnering a 7-2 record with a 3.16 ERA. Starters Alonzo Gonzalez (6-2) and David Lira (4-1) have also fared well, while the bullpen has been formidable with closer Kirk Edson leading the way with seven saves and a minuscule 0.83 ERA.

"I anticipate Cory getting the start [in the opener]," said Cicuto of Popham, who at one point was sat down, but has shown great maturity in developing into a dominant pitcher. "He's really grown up mentally; his skills have always been there."

Crescenta Valley High product Chris Stroh has set the table all season for the Vaqueros, as the returning starter boasts a team-high .322 average along with 35 runs, five triples and 23 stolen bases. Edgar Montes (26 runs, 12 doubles, four home runs and 27 RBI), Ruben Padilla (23 runs, 21 RBI, 11 extra-base hits), Cameron Gardner (27 runs, 22 RBI, 19 stolen bases) and Adam Ochart (.297, 20 runs, 20 RBI) have also been key components in a well-balanced offense that's averaging just under seven runs a game.

The Vaqueros, who are 12-5 at home, enter the postseason having won two games in a row and seven of eight — their last victory coming in the form of a spirited 8-6 triumph at L.A. Mission in 14 innings on Thursday that was all the more impressive considering GCC had wrapped up its second straight conference title with a win over Mission two days earlier.

"I thought they made a great decision," said Cicuto of his players going all out in their finale despite the contest holding little meaning for them. "It feels good knowing our guys aren't gonna take any pitches off."

Should the Vaqueros advance, they would play in one of two Southern California Super Regionals, which are hosted at the top remaining seed's home field from May 11-13. In GCC's top half of the bracket, top-seeded Orange Coast College will face either No. 16 L.A. Valley or No. 17 Bakersfield, as the two WSC foes square off in a single-elimination game today. No. 8 Southwestern is hosting No. 9 El Camino and No. 4 Mt. San Antonio is hosting No. 13 Golden West. In the bottom half of the regional, No. 2 Rio Hondo is the highest seed and will play either College of the Canyons, the fourth WSC South representative, or Santa Barbara City. In competition with other squads from the Southern California bracket this season, GCC has gone 9-6.

Winners of the respective Southern California Super Regionals will join a pair of Northern California representatives at the state championships at Bakersfield College from May 18-20.

Last season, GCC, the No. 6 seed, hosted Cypress in the regional and won in a dramatic series that went three games. Thereafter, it went a perfect 3-0 to win the Rio Hondo College Super Regional before advancing to the California Community College Athletic Assn. State Championships, where it lost twice to eventual champion San Joaquin Delta and defeated Santa Ana in between losses.

Now, GCC looks to maintain its momentum from this season with more than a week off between games.

"We're gonna try and simulate some games," Cicuto said, "try and get back in that schedule."

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