Thursday, May 27, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
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- Magazine's past cover kids found mixed success (6-6-2009)
- Las Vegas 'prodigy' makes Sports Illustrated cover (6-2-2009)
- Talent sky-high, feet on ground (5-7-2009)
- It's a swing of beauty (2-7-2009)
You could sense the excitement in the air. This definitely wasn’t your typical practice.
As members of the College of Southern Nevada baseball team went through an abbreviated workout Tuesday, the wide smiles on the players’ faces and enthusiasm in the way they handled their preparations made it obvious they were days away from an experience of a lifetime.
The Coyotes will begin play Saturday in the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., returning to the event for the first time since winning the national title in 2003.
There is no need to remind the players to cherish the moment — they understand how fortunate they are. Reaching a World Series, no matter what level of competition, is elusive to even the sport’s most accomplished players.
“I probably won’t realize it until we take the field for our first game,” sophomore outfielder Marvin Campbell said. “We just have to remember that it is the same game we have been playing our whole lives. It's just going to be on a bigger stage.”
The Tuesday workout, the Coyotes’ first since winning the Western District Championships last weekend to advance to the 10-team Series, featured batting and fielding practice, and pitchers tweaking their mechanics in the bullpen.
It was the calm before the storm.
Roughly 15,000 fans are expected to be in attendance for each game at the Series, and a number of them will be there to get a glimpse of the Coyotes’ top player.
Bryce Harper, who last June appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was proclaimed "Baseball's Chosen One,” has been a one-man show of sorts all season. The magazine article compared the slugger to basketball icon LeBron James, instantly turning the local teenager into a nationwide sensation.
The 17-year-old, who is expected to be the top overall pick by the Washington Nationals in next month’s draft, hasn’t disappointed.
In last week’s district event, Harper hit a 500-foot home run in one game, batted for the cycle in the next and closed by smacking four home runs and knocking in 10 runs in the Coyotes’ 25-11 victory against Central Arizona to secure a spot in Grand Junction.
Harper’s big bat — he is batting .449 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs — helped Southern Nevada improve from a disappointing 35 wins last spring to a 49-14 mark and No. 2 national ranking. His impact can be measured in one statistic: Harper hit 12 more home runs this spring than the entire Coyotes’ roster did last year.
But, as coach Tim Chambers has long stressed, Harper isn’t the only player who will be relied on. It will take contributions from all 29 players to win the title.
Take Gabe Weidenaar for example.
Weidenaar ranked second nationally in strikeouts last year as Southern Nevada’s pitching ace. But after the Coyotes upgraded their staff with transfers in the offseason, he found himself thriving in a different role.
Now, Weidenaar is one of the Coyotes’ most valuable field players, seeing time at multiple positions and batting .373, which is fourth best on the team. His utility role includes 13 innings pitched, where he has a 2.77 earned run average with 21 strikeouts and only two walks.
He doesn’t care where Chambers inserts him in the lineup, as long as the Coyotes continue having success. Turning the tables from a 35-win season last spring, the worst win total in the program’s 11-year history, not personal glory, was Weidenaar’s motivation.
“I honestly hated last year,” Weidenaar said. “I was playing one out of four games. I would start the first game of the series and felt helpless sitting there the other games. Being in the utility role allows me to contribute every game. It’s a good situation for everyone.”
Weidenaar’s transition off the mound was made possible when local products Donn Roach (Arizona) and Aaron Kurcz (Air Force) transferred in.
Roach, who won three high school state titles at Bishop Gorman, leads Southern Nevada with 11 wins and will start the Series opener against Pitt Community College of North Carolina. Kurcz, from Durango High, is a hard-throwing reliever with 10 saves and 52 strikeouts in 35 innings.
“We virtually broke every school record on the table,” Chambers said. “This is a special group.”
Ultimately, however, receiving quality pitching, or timely hitting, will only take the Coyotes so far. They’ll need to handle the increased attention just like they have all year.
The team prides itself in its togetherness and hasn’t let the often circus-like atmosphere surrounding Harper hinder their performance.
They are also dealing with another potential distraction: Chambers has been mentioned a possible candidate to replace Buddy Gouldsmith as UNLV’s coach. He said UNLV hasn’t contacted him.
“Who says I would go if they do contact me,” he said. “I’ve built this program from the ground up. It’s a special part of me.”
While the spotlight will be magnetized at the Series — for instance, MLB Network will show game highlights — the players know the attention is all part of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Not too many people get to go to a World Series, whether it is junior college, Division I or the big leagues,” Weidenaar said. “It’s going to be a blast. I’m going to have fun with it.”