Former Ontario Blue Jays OF Austen Swift (Toronto, Ont.) of the William Jessup Warriors leads the nation in home runs (eight) and RBIs (30) in 21 games, helping the Warriors to their first ever ranking -- 20th in the NAIA's top 25. He is one of 30 players and one coach on the top-ranked teams. Photo: Tim Casey.
By Nick Herfordt
The NAIA action has been going on for a little longer than their NCAA brethren. As such, the results have had a much more malleable effect on the rankings. The most noteworthy and impressive box scores have been posted by a most surprising team this season.
The William Jessup baseball program was established in 2015 with great anticipation and optimism. The school was exponentially growing and the program had the support of the administration and community, filling a private college void in the Sacramento area and its launch was assisted by former American League Manager of the Year and World Series winning coach Jerry Manuel. However unlike other neophyte NAIA schools such as Georgia Gwinnett, Arizona Christian and Antelope Valley, who ignited their programs in the last decade, the Warriors’ on-the-field successes have been few and far between.
Their first season WJU only managed nine wins in 46 contests; an understandable outcome for a debut, but they unfortunately were unable to build upon their limited success and took a substantial step back their sophomore season. They only won three of 40 contests, batting .212 as a team while only averaging a smidge over two runs per game. Last season they more than tripled their previous win output, but that’s not saying much considering they still finished 10-34 and were the undisputed cellar dweller in the GSAC standings.
With their losing pedigree, combined with a coaching change, there wasn’t much confidence outside of Rocklin in their 2018 output. Jessup was forecasted to finished seventh of eight teams in the GSAC by conference coaches and the official preseason conference write up justifiably announced that, “William Jessup seems to have a lot of early season unknowns.” Nevertheless, somehow those question marks have straightened to become exclamation points as the Warriors are one of the hottest teams in the nation. WJU has won 16 of their first 20 games, including a sweep of previously ranked and 2017 World Series participant Hope International.
While the players of course deserve the overwhelming Lion’s share of the accolades, some of the commendation needs to be heaped on new head coach Jake McKinley. McKinley made the move over the summer from Menlo where he and his players had earned a number of honors in a short amount of time on campus. While McKinley has brought in some quality recruits to campus to up their winning ways, he’s more importantly been able to blend those players with the established athletes in a cohesive culture where the coaches and players don’t just enjoy playing the game but each other’s company as well. The team-focused mentality is a big reason why a different player seemingly has been able to step up and be a hero in each of the team’s wins.
Of course, like any true leader, McKinley is quick to pass the praise to his team and assistant coaches.
“Regarding the year so far, it really comes down to the players first and foremost,” McKinley stated when asked about his team’s turnaround. “The returning players have been so welcoming of me from day one and the last minute recruits we were able to get have blended well into the program. That has been the key in establishing a special culture.
“Also, our assistant coaches have done a great job in all areas relating to the preparation of our players. We always feel equipped to compete when a series starts and they deserve the credit for that.“
While its still a bit early to deem WJU’s newly found winning ways as legit, they certainly don’t appear to falling back to their pushover position any time soon. With their 16-4 record headed into the week they’ve certainly impressed enough to make their Perfect Game Top 25 rankings debut. The Warriors, along with a revamped Southeastern Fire team, the Bryan Lions and Madonna Crusaders join this week’s NAIA Top 25 rankings.
Rk. Prev. School ST Record
1. 1 Faulkner Eagles AL 12-0
5. 3 Bellevue Bruins NE 3-3
LHP Dylan Thorp (North Vancouver, BC)
8. 8 Oklahoma Wesleyan Eagles OK 8-2
OF Chris Acosta-Tapia (Laval, Que.), INF John Lantigua (Quebec City, Que.) and RHP Claudio Ortiz (Montreal, Que.).
10. 5 Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs TN 6-5
OF Tristan Clarke (Brampton, Ont.).
11. 15 Concordia Cardinals MI 8-2
RHP Gregory Barbuto (Oakville, Ont.).
13. 10 LSU Shreveport Pilots LA 8-5
C Owen Napieralski (Delta, BC), RHP Hunter Cunningham (Mission, BC), RHP Cole Masik (Vancouver, BC), IF Ryan Pouwells (Surrey, BC) and coach Brent Lavallee (North Delta, BC).
Former North Shore Twin Hunter Cunningham (Mission, BC) of the LSU-Shreveport Pilots.
16. 16 Northwestern Ohio Racers OH 9-7
RHP Olivier Mailloux (Ville De Quebec, Que.), OF Myles Miller (Windsor, Ont.), C Kyle Bryan (Whitby, Ont), INF Hunter James (Stratford, Ont.), LHP Kareem Kobrosli (Windsor, Ont.), RHP James De Sousa (Pickering, Ont.) and INF Jorden Bonomo (Hamilton, Ont.).
17. 17 Lewis-Clark State Warriors ID 8-2
OF Mason Verge (Vancouver, BC).
18. NR Bryan Lions TN 12-0
IF Tyler Scott (Calgary, Alta.), RHP Kurt Meeberg (Edmonton, Alta.), RHP Brandon Marklund (North Vancouver, BC)
Former Windsor Selects C C Matt Deneau (Amherstburg, Ont.)
19. NR Madonna Crusaders MI 13-0
INF William Da Costa (Toronto, Ont.); OF Noah Renaud (River Canard, Ont.), C Matt Deneau (Amherstburg, Ont.), C Mitch Hudvagner (Cottam, Ont.).
20. NR William Jessup Warriors CA 16-4
OF Austen Swift (Toronto, Ont.)
23. 23 Point Park Pioneers PA 0-0
RHP Jake Forgrave (Toronto, Ont).
24. 22 Indiana Tech Warriors IN 6-6
C-OF Taylor Nychyk (St. Andrews, Man.), RHP Brandon Hillier, Orangeville, Ont.) and OF Shoma Sasaki (Delta, BC).