Sometimes failure can be the greatest teacher. Growth can be born from defeat.
In 2015, the City College baseball team suffered a major setback. With a record of 17-19, the Panthers managed their fewest wins in a season since 1970.
“Our culture went down the drain,” says head coach Derek Sullivan, who enters his sixth season as the Panthers’ manager. “It wasn’t the Sac City that Sac City was supposed to be.”
For a program rich in championship tradition — 38 conference titles and five state championships, including a national crown in 1998 — the bar needed to be reset. The City coaching staff decided on a change of philosophy.
“We didn’t coach a whole lot of swings or deliveries, or this or that,” says Sullivan about the approach to the following season. “We just tried to talk a lot to our guys about what it means to be at Sac City. This is what our culture has always been and needs to be. We had a group of guys that decided they wanted to change it back to that, and we got immediate results.”
City rebounded with a 10-win swing in 2016 and made a return to the postseason. The Panthers seemed to be back on the right path in what Sullivan called a “three-year process.”
Last season, the Panthers made an even bigger win improvement and an even deeper run into the playoffs. With a 33-14 overall record — its best win total in a decade — the team fell one win shy of qualifying for the state championship tournament.
“We have a bunch of returning guys who got a taste,” says Sullivan. “We were good enough to be in the dance. We just got beat by another good team. Last year, we were ahead of schedule. We weren’t supposed to be that good. We had a bunch of overachievers. That experience — you cannot replace it. We have a group of hungry guys. They feel it.”
Entering the 2018 season, City ranked fifth in the pre-season California Community College Baseball Coaches Association polls. If 2016 was year No. 1 of Sullivan’s three-year process, and 2017 was year No. 2, then 2018 comes with high expectations for year No. 3.
“We’re trying to win a state championship,” says Sullivan. “It won’t be won in January. If we want to win a state championship, it will be a culmination of improving our process over the course of months, and hopefully a couple breaks go our way.”
January and early February have provided a strong start to 2018 as the Panthers are 4-1, outscoring their opponents 50-13, over their first five games. Sullivan’s lineup has a myriad of interchangeable parts.
Returning sophomores include first baseman Jake Guenther, shortstop Joe McNamara, third baseman Ruben Garza and outfielders Creed Smith and Kody Garner, whose 10 early RBIs are the third most in California. Freshmen designated hitter Kevin Acuff, second baseman Daniel Walsh, catchers Kevin Saenz and Brett Bello, and outfielders Nick Hadd, Anthony Galati, Brodie Garner, Jordan Woods and Jaylund Johnson, whose four doubles are tied for most in the state, could all see significant at-bats in 2018.
“We’re just trying to get to know our roles right now,” says the 6-foot-4 Guenther, who will be transferring to play at Texas Christian University after this season. “We’re just trying to mesh. Just about anyone that we put on the field, we can expect to have a good game.”
Over the first five games, Guenther has reached base in more than two-thirds of his plate appearances. As of Feb. 3, the big lefty’s patience at the plate and discipline to see good pitches has allowed him to draw 10 walks, the most in the state.
Sophomores Ben Purcell and Danny Chavez front the starting rotation while Adam Erickson, Daylon Matthews (City’s backup quarterback) and Luis Salinas all return to bolster the bullpen.
The pitching staff is capable of putting up elite numbers. Through five games as a unit, City’s 47 strikeouts and 1.64 earned run average are both Top 5 team numbers in the state, and the team is not even at full strength.
“We’ve still got four guys on the (disabled list) that are going to come and make an immediate impact,” says Purcell. “Anyone that gets put into the game is going to be ready. If there’s one thing you can expect, expect that.”
Sullivan enjoys the flexibility and depth of his team. It’s a luxury most teams don’t have.
“We have a number of guys who could start,” says Sullivan. “There’s no set role. Whoever gives us the best chance to win, we’re going to go with that guy. Whatever the situation may be, I think that’s just very straightforward baseball.”
City lost the opening game Jan. 26 to Cañada College 3-2 with costly errors but responded the next day with a 22-3 pounding of the Colts. City then swept a three-game series against Chabot College from Jan. 30–Feb. 2, extending a four-game win streak.
Beyond wins and losses, what’s most important to the team is chemistry and a family type of atmosphere in the clubhouse. That’s what the returning sophomores took away from the end of their playoff run last season.
“The worst part of it is that you don’t get to see your brothers every day,” says Guenther. “If the culture is No. 1 here, everybody’s going to get better. When it does come to the end of the road, everybody knows they left it on the table.”
Purcell agrees. He says that last year’s team was one of the closest groups he’s ever played with.
“You can be as talented as you are, but if you’re not close as a team, you’re not going to go anywhere,” says Purcell. “What we learned last year, we’re instilling it now, and we’re hitting the ground running right away.”
That is the type of attitude that makes Sullivan’s process seem closer to completion in 2018.
“We don’t have the most talent in the state, but I know the mindset is good,” says Sullivan. “I think we’ve got the right mix going now.”
The Panthers’ next game is Feb. 6 at Cañada College. Their next home game at Union Stadium is Feb. 10 against De Anza. Big 8 conference play begins Feb. 27 with a three-game set against San Joaquin Delta.
For more info on SCC baseball, visit http://sccpanthers.losrios.edu/sports/bsb/index.