2021 Western Athletic Conference Preview

Image credit: Sacramento State OF Matt Smith (Photo courtesy of Sacramento State)

It is not likely to be a year of much transition in college baseball, as teams across the country return huge percentages of their rosters from 2020 and find themselves deeper and more talented than ever. 

And while that’s also largely true in the WAC, circumstances have made it so that it is one conference that could see some shifting in 2021. 

What hasn’t changed is that Sacramento State will go into the season as the favorite, just as it did last season. The contenders behind it, though, are a bit more in flux. 

New Mexico State has been in the mix of late, but Nick Gonzales left as the seventh-overall draft pick, slugger Tristan Peterson transferred to Washington State and starting pitcher Chase Hroch transferred to Nebraska. 

Grand Canyon will still be a contender, but it has some rebuilding to do as well. After last season, it lost ace Kade Mechals via the draft, slugging first baseman Cuba Bess and starting second baseman Drew Smith as nondrafted free agents, and key reliever Cole Hoskins via transfer to Southeastern Louisiana. 

It remains to be seen what that will mean for the WAC race in 2021, but the conference has been known for exciting finishes, including in 2019, when four teams tied atop the standings with 19-8 records, so it will be interesting to see what’s in store this time around.  

As has so often been the case in the WAC in recent years, changes in membership are afoot. After last season, Chicago State eliminated its baseball program and Cal State Bakersfield moved on to the Big West. Starting this season, Dixie State and Tarleton State officially move up to Division I and the WAC. After this season, Northern Colorado will leave the conference and move to the Summit League for baseball. 

Also coming after this season is an influx of new teams, with Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin arriving from the Southland Conference. That bit of jockeying was primarily for the purpose of getting the WAC ready to begin playing football again, but it also stands to make the league better from a baseball standpoint. It will also serve to even out the geography of the conference, which currently leaves Texas-Rio Grande Valley and Tarleton State fairly isolated. 

For this season, the league has adopted a 36-game conference schedule made up of nine series of four games each, with a doubleheader to be played each Saturday. 

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Matt Smith, OF, Sacramento State

Smith has been a key piece in the Sacramento State lineup for a long time now. The sixth-year senior is a career .304/.366/.439 hitter with his best season coming in 2019, when he hit .311/.378/.478 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs as part of the Hornets’ most recent regional team, a performance that earned him first-team all-WAC honors. He is already tied for the program’s all-time record in triples with nine and he’s in the top 10 in career hits with 208. With another big season, his name will be prominently featured in many more places in the Sacramento State record book. 

Pitcher of the Year: Kevin Stevens, RHP, Texas-Rio Grande Valley

Under any circumstances, the story of Stevens becoming a contributing piece at UTRGV would be a good one. He began his career pitching at the junior college and NAIA levels, but never really got traction there thanks in large part to injuries. Next, he walked on at UTRGV prior to last season and not only earned innings but dominated as the team’s Friday starter. He began his season by throwing five no-hit innings with nine strikeouts against Kansas State. Two weeks later, he struck out 12 in 6.1 innings against South Dakota State. In his last start, he gave up one run and struck out eight in six innings against New Jersey Tech. He ended the season 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA, which was only that high because of one tough start against Oklahoma State. In 20.2 innings, he struck out 31, good for second in the conference, and held opponents to a .203 batting average. He’ll this season lead a UTRGV rotation that should help it compete for the WAC title once again. 

Newcomer of the Year: Ryland Zaborowski, 3B, Grand Canyon

Zaborowski was ranked No. 442 in the BA 500 going into the draft, where the five-round nature of the event ensured that he ended up on campus at GCU rather than in pro baseball. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Zaborowski is a physical hitter already, with a long history of impressive exit velocities to show for it. He is a natural third baseman, where the Lopes have competition going into the season, but he could also be a fit at first base, another position that’s somewhat up in the air. No matter where he ends up, GCU will almost certainly look to get his raw power into the lineup quickly.

Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)

1. Sacramento State (9-7)

The Hornets’ pitching staff put up a stellar 2.58 team ERA in 2020, and while the departure of staff Ace Parker Brahms to the professional ranks will make it a tough task to replicate that success, it’s a safe bet that it will continue to pitch well given that the last time Sacramento State had an ERA over 4.00 was 2016. Fourth-year junior righthander Scott Randall (2-1, 1.75), who has a 2.83 career ERA in nearly 200 innings of work, gives the team a dependable arm at the front of the rotation. He’ll be followed by third-year sophomore righthander Travis Adams (2-1, 1.57), who transitioned well into starting full time last season, and second-year freshman righthander Eli Saul (1-1, 8.59), an extremely talented pitcher with a fastball that has been into the mid 90s who simply never got going in his first year. True freshman righthander Kevin Haynes projects to grab the fourth rotation spot this season. The Hornets are in good shape in the bullpen as well with the return of fourth-year junior righthander Stone Churby (0.00, 9 IP) and fourth-year junior lefthander Brady Rodriguez (2.84, 12.2 IP). 

Last year’s lineup hit just .222 as a group, but expecting something similar in 2021 greatly undersells that unit’s potential. Sixth-year senior left fielder Matt Smith (.298/.414/.526) is a great piece to build around, as are fifth-year junior catcher Dawsen Bacho (.317/.406/.483), fifth-year senior first baseman Ryan Walstad (.321/.463/.509) and fourth-year junior shortstop Keith Torres (.294/.439/.412). Fourth-year junior third baseman Steven Moretto (.118/.220/.216) is a much more effective player than his 2020 stats suggest. He slugged 17 home runs in 2018 and 2019 combined. UC Davis graduate transfer Logan Denholm, who will likely DH in deference to Bacho behind the plate, could also provide a spark after hitting .270/.376/.398 with 11 career homers for the Aggies, despite playing home games in a pitcher’s ballpark. If Sacramento State wins a WAC title and makes a postseason appearance in 2021, it’s most likely that it pitched its way there, but this position player group should more than carry its own weight.

2. Grand Canyon (9-9)

The Lopes have had to do more retooling than most WAC teams going into the 2021 season, but they still should be expected to compete at the top of the league. On the mound, they don’t have a clear cut frontline Friday starter after the departure of Kade Mechals via the draft, but what they have is a number of talented, experienced options. Third-year sophomore righthander Pierson Ohl (1-2, 2.89) will lead the way, to be followed by fourth-year junior righthander Zach Barnes (3.86, 11.2 IP), third-year sophomore righthander Brodie Cooper-Vassalakis (1.23, 14.2 IP), who excelled out of the bullpen last season, and fifth-year junior righthander Jack Schneider (1-1, 3.27), who has been a member of the weekend rotation for his entire GCU career. A pair of big-armed fourth-year junior righthanders, Frankie Scalzo (0.00, 11 IP) and Nick Hull (2.08, 8.2 IP) will lead the bullpen. Both put up good numbers in 2020 and feature fastballs that were up to 95 mph last fall. 

In the lineup, there are open competitions at first base and third base, and one of those positions figures to be filled by Ryland Zaborowski, a mature-bodied freshman ready to hit for power right away. Fellow freshmen Jacob Wilson and Tyler Wilson (no relation) have also impressed early on and look ready to assume big roles immediately. Those newcomers will be joining a core that includes fourth-year junior second baseman Juan Colato (.367/.419/.620) and fourth-year junior center fielder Brock Burton (.258/.373/.306), a physical presence at the plate who doubles as a quality defensive center fielder. GCU is actually in good shape defensively all the way up the middle with the return of fourth-year junior catcher David Avitia (.204/.283/.259), an advanced defensive backstop, and fourth-year junior shortstop Channy Ortiz (.282/.373/.352), who the staff describes as a coach on the field. The lineup coming together and proving to be productive offensively is a key to the Lopes being ready to keep up in the WAC.

3. Texas-Rio Grande Valley (11-7)

Two years ago, UTRGV surprised some by finishing as part of the four-way tie atop the WAC standings, and now, the Vaqueros aren’t ready to fade into the background anytime soon. The 2021 team will feature an experienced lineup led by fifth-year senior catcher Conrado Diaz (.309/.500/.436), sixth-year senior first baseman Andy Atwood (.309/.400/.500), fifth-year senior center fielder Coleman Grubbs (.300/.412/.457), fifth-year senior shortstop Christian Sepulveda (.297/.382/.391) and fifth-year junior right fielder Jacob Hirsh (.274/.384/.323). The pitching staff will be led by fifth-year senior righthander Kevin Stevens (2-1, 3.48), who has gone from junior college to NAIA to walk-on at UTRGV to one of the best arms in the WAC. He’ll give the Vaqueros a shot every Friday. Behind him, the team will lean on a pair of pitchers transitioning to the weekend rotation for the first time in fourth-year junior righthander Max Balderrama (2.40, 15 IP) and fifth-year junior righthander John Henry Gonzalez (3.60, 15 IP), both of whom were in swing roles last season. The favorite to round out the rotation is junior college transfer righthander J.C. Ariza, who began his career at Tulane. If fourth-year junior righthander Ricky Gerik (1.54, 11.2 IP) and fifth-year junior righthander Chase Bridges (2.38, 11.1 IP) are as good this season as they were last season, the bullpen will be in good shape. Because of the experience, the floor for UTRGV is pretty high. If the rotation comes together behind Stevens like the staff hopes it will, it will serve to significantly raise the ceiling for what this team can accomplish. 

4. California Baptist (7-8)

Cal Baptist is still a couple of years away from being able to compete in postseason play, but not unlike when Grand Canyon made its move up to Division I, the Lancers look set on competing well in the conference during the entirety of their transition period. Certainly, they appear to have the talent on the roster to make some noise again in 2021. The lineup returns key contributors in third-year sophomore left fielder Chad Castillo (.350/.451/.500), fourth-year junior DH Ulises Caballero (.340/.404/.560) and fifth-year senior center fielder Nick Plaia (.321/.433/.429) among several others, and adds to that group second-year freshman catcher Michael Carpentier, a 30th-round draft pick out of high school who began his career at Arizona State, and Harvard graduate transfer shortstop Chad Minato (.167/.286/.167), a solid defender who the coaching staff describes as a vocal leader. The rotation returns a solid one-two punch in fourth-year junior righthander Bryan Pope (3-1, 2.84), who has a four-pitch mix highlighted by a sinker that typically sits 92 mph but can reach 94, and fifth-year junior Chris Burica (1-3, 3.90), a 6-foot-6 lefthander who the staff sees as a consummate competitor. Starting assignments also project to go to fifth-year senior righthander Matt Amrhein (1.72, 15.2 IP), a slot-shifter who has a career 3.20 ERA in 109.2 innings, nearly exclusively in relief, and true freshman righthander Ryan Delgado, the biggest pitching recruit in Cal Baptist history. 


5. New Mexico State (12-4)

This season, New Mexico State will begin life without Nick Gonzales, the best player in program history. That would be a tough thing to overcome on its own, but the Aggies are also moving on without Tristan Peterson, who hit .400 with 20 homers in 2019 and transferred to Washington State, and starting pitcher Chance Hroch, who is now at Nebraska. The Aggies should still mash in 2021, because they do play in an offensive environment, and more importantly, they return some key pieces in the lineup. That group includes fourth-year junior right fielder Noah Haupt (.405/.395/.667), fourth-year junior first baseman Zach Smits (.400/.478/.550), third-year sophomore left fielder Zarek Saenz (.344/.429/.375) and fourth-year junior center fielder Tommy Tabak (.324/.425/.500). The team also has to feel quite good about who it has at the front of the rotation with the return of third-year sophomore righthander Chris Barraza (2-0, 2.66), who runs his fastball from 92-96 mph to go along with a slider and splitter. FIfth-year senior righthander Chris Jefferson (2-1, 2.05) is also back after pitching extremely well last season. A wild card for New Mexico State is Stanford transfer Brandon Dieter, a highly-touted prep prospect who never quite put it all together for the Cardinal. He projects to be the Aggies’ starting shortstop and the team’s closer. If he breaks out in the way that many expected him to at Stanford, New Mexico State will have a star on its hands. 

6. Dixie State (first year in Division I)

As Grand Canyon and Cal Baptist have shown in the recent past, a team transitioning up to Division I can compete in the WAC right away, and Dixie State looks to have a team that, at the very least, is going to cause some headaches for the best teams in the league in 2021. The Trailblazers can really swing the bats, and while facing Division I pitching promises to be a tougher challenge for the lineup, there’s little reason to believe they can’t continue to put up good numbers. They return key regulars from a team that hit .325/.434/.522 as a group last season in fifth-year senior left fielder Jack Engel (.458/.568/.864), fifth-year junior first baseman Tanner Harper (.408/.508/.653), third-year sophomore third baseman Tyson Fisher (.365/.446/.651), fifth-year senior right fielder Lane Pritchard (.365/.494/.571) and fourth-year junior second baseman Tyler Hollow (.333/.434/.413). Tyler’s brother Kaden (.158/.304/.263), a second-year freshman, will do the catching. His bat didn’t quite come around last season, but he’s already a gifted defensive backstop with an above-average arm. Dixie State won’t have the biggest arms in the conference on the mound, but it returns most of the best pitchers from a staff that was effective to the tune of a 2.69 ERA last season. The biggest arm of the bunch is actually a newcomer in junior college transfer righthander Carson Phillips, whose high-spin fastball sits 88-92 mph and touches 94. The returners behind him in the four-man rotation are fourth-year junior lefthander Jack Gonzales (2-1, 2.77), fourth-year junior righthander Justin Dunham (2-0, 1.52) and sixth-year senior lefthander Tevita Gerber (4-0, 2.76), none of whom have a fastball that will regularly sit in the 90s but all of whom have proven they know how to get outs. The return of fifth-year senior righthander Brayden Bonner, who missed last season after earning second-team all-conference honors as a closer in 2019, is a huge one for the bullpen, which will also be anchored by fourth-year junior righthander Zach Hansen (0.00, 7.2 IP). 

7. Seattle (7-9)

The Redhawks return seven of their nine starters from a season ago, giving them an intriguing group of position players. Third-year sophomore third baseman Julian Kodama (.379/.422/.500), fourth-year junior shortstop Connor O’Brien (.326/.326/.565), who doubles as Seattle’s best draft prospect going into the season and fourth-year junior DH Justin Mazzone (.296/.397/.407) will lead the way in that regard. There is much more rebuilding to be done on the pitching staff, where the Redhawks are without reliever Brandon Jenkins, who signed with the White Sox as a free agent, reliever Tyler Yeh, who graduated, and weekend starter Ethan Christianson, who will miss the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. The return of fourth-year junior lefthander Jarrod Billig (3-2, 4.07) gives the staff an experienced building block in the rotation, but they’ll be leaning on a pair of newcomers and a converted reliever in the other three spots. The good news about that is there is upside with all three of those pitchers. Third-year sophomore righthander Morgan White, a transfer from Portland and the projected Friday starter, struck out 30 and held opponents to a .228 batting average in 29.1 career innings for the Pilots. Freshman righthander Nestor German, who projects to slot in behind Billig as the third starter, was the biggest pleasant surprise for the coaching staff coming out of the fall. And in the fourth spot, third-year sophomore righthander Alex Jemal (2.81, 16 IP) is a pitcher who took a big step forward as a reliever in 2020. If he does something similar in 2021, it would go a long way toward shoring up the Seattle pitching staff. 

8. Tarleton State (first year in Division I)

Like fellow newcomer Dixie State, Tarleton State has an offense that should allow it to be fairly competitive in the league from the jump. The Texans hit .313/.438/.464 as a team last season and bring a number of key contributors back, including fifth-year senior first baseman Blake Burns (.452/.550/.798), fourth-year junior right fielder London Green (.432/.543/.730), fifth-year junior shortstop Corey Young (.380/.473/.465), third-year freshman catcher Cody Vannoy (.366/.449/.488) and fifth-year senior second baseman Tyler Fowler (.330/.421/.454). Pitching is much more of a question mark, as the Texans had a 6.41 ERA last season, but they’ve brought in some reinforcements to shore up that unit. The projected Friday starter is New Mexico State transfer lefthander Alex Pinedo (3.18, 11.1 IP), who had a 3.32 career ERA with the Aggies in 81.1 innings. A pair of junior college transfer righthanders in Bryce Hackett and Zach Gagnon will follow in the rotation. Hackett can run his fastball up to 94 mph, while Gagnon uses a fastball from 88-92 mph with a plus changeup. One of Tarleton State’s best returning arms, fourth-year junior righthander Justin Waltmon (3-2, 4.35) will round out the rotation. The coaching staff sees the bullpen as a potential strength and it’s easy to see why. Back in the fold is fourth-year junior righthander Luke Baley (2.86, 22 IP), the team’s most effective pitcher last season. He uses a fastball up to 94 mph and a slider to get hitters out. He’ll be joined by Nevada transfer righthander Josh Congress. He missed last season due to injury, but in 2019, he had a 4.62 ERA for the Wolf Pack in 25.1 innings. He has a high-spin fastball that runs 90-93 mph and good feel for his changeup. Tarleton State has the pieces on paper to be a real nuisance in its first year in the WAC, but it’s just a matter of the players, particularly on the pitching staff, proving themselves on the Division I stage. 

9. Utah Valley (5-14)

Any conversation about Utah Valley heading back in the right direction and being a player in the top half of the WAC in 2021 has to begin with the return of fifth-year senior starting pitcher Jesse Schmit (2-0, 1.08). The righthander converted brilliantly from closer to starting pitcher in 2020, putting up one of the best seasons for any starting pitcher in college baseball. In his final start before the season was canceled last year, he threw seven shutout innings with eight strikeouts against Washington on the road. Third-year sophomore lefthander Logan Petet (0.69, 13 IP) is another key returner on the mound after he served as an effective multi-inning reliever a year ago. The lineup will have to improve upon its .214 team batting average for the Wolverines to make a move up the standings, but having back fourth-year junior Mitch Moralez (.329/.365/.418), fifth-year senior Kade Poulsen (.357/.426/.381) and second-year freshman Garrett Broussard (.298/.333/.368) will help form the foundation for a more productive batting order. A newcomer who could inject some offense right away is Boise State transfer first baseman Kase Ogata, who hit .357/.455/.643 in his one season with the Broncos. 

10. Northern Colorado (4-13)

The Bears hit just .209 as a team last season, but far and away their most productive hitter, fourth-year junior outfielder Jake Gitter (.283/.368/.583), returns to lead the lineup in 2021. No other Northern Colorado regular hit better than .241 last season, so in order for this group to be more productive this season, it’ll need Gitter to continue to produce in that same manner and it’ll need to have others step up to provide him protection. Fifth-year junior infielder Sam Leach (.213/.254/.295) is a bounceback candidate to watch. He never got going last season, but in 2019, he hit .311/.396/.451. The Bears were dealt a blow on the mound when staff ace Isaac Bracken transferred to Arkansas after last season, but a couple of relievers who pitched well in 2020 return in fourth-year junior righthander Logan Chase (1.04, 8.2 IP) and second-year freshman righthander Cooper Rust (1.29, 7 IP). Of the returning starting pitchers from last season, fifth-year junior righthander Dylan Bowers (0-2, 5.79) was the most effective a year ago. Fourth-year sophomore righthander Sam Colehower (1-1, 9.24) struggled after moving into a starting role last season, but two seasons ago, he had a 2.16 ERA as a short reliever, so he certainly has some upside, whether that comes in getting more acclimated to starting games or moving back to the bullpen. 

Top 2021 Draft Prospects

  1. Chris Barraza, RHP, New Mexico State
  2. Brandon Dieter, SS/RHP, New Mexico State
  3. Chad Castillo, OF, California Baptist
  4. Scott Randall, RHP, Sacramento State
  5. Stone Churby, RHP, Sacramento State
  6. Connor O’Brien, SS, Seattle
  7. Damon Keith, OF, California Baptist
  8. Kevin Stevens, RHP, Texas-Rio Grande Valley
  9. Michael Carpentier, C, California Baptist
  10. Tyson Fisher, 3B, Dixie State

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