San Jacinto Talent Pipeline Continues To Produce

HOUSTON—On the eastern outskirts of America’s fourth-largest city, San Jacinto Junior College’s storied baseball program usually practices in relative anonymity.

At nearly 20 miles from downtown Houston, it wouldn’t even be fair to say the Gators are in the shadow of Minute Maid Park, as their Division I neighbors Rice or Houston could claim. The school’s north campus is surrounded by an elementary school, student housing, a high school football stadium—the surest sign you’re in Texas—and drainage ditches with names like “Big Gulch.”

But on a sunny January day, San Jac’s practice felt like a big league atmosphere. The program, which has had 21 players drafted directly from the juco ranks since 2006, is teeming with both potential pro talent and actual professional experience.

Before practice, Phillies pitcher and former San Jac ace Daniel Stumpf was working out in anticipation of Philadelphia’s big league camp after being taken in the Rule 5 draft from the Royals. Head coach Tom Arrington pitched at the Triple-A level in the Texas and Montreal organizations during the 1980s. Beside each foul pole, montages of San Jac products include names like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Brandon Belt and Jesse Crain.

“It’s the names on the walls and that billboard out there,” Stumpf said of the program’s appeal. “It’s the guys being drafted and those World Series appearances.”

The Gators won five national titles under former coach Wayne Graham, now the head man at Rice, and have made 23 Junior College World Series appearances, each chronicled on San Jac’s scoreboard.

They haven’t won it all since 1990, yet the program is perhaps as strong as ever under Arrington. Take this year’s squad, as highly touted prospects litter the roster. Shortstop Nick Shumpert and first baseman Liam Scafariello were among Baseball America’s top 500 draft-eligible players last year. Lefthander Devin Smeltzer threw a no-hitter in the Cape Cod League last summer and made the top 30 prospects list. Catcher Ryan January and righty Garrett Hutson are well regarded by scouts and college coaches alike.

If players don’t immediately advance to the draft—a primary draw of junior colleges—the program regularly pumps talent into name-brand colleges. Sixteen players signed with four-year schools in 2015, and six more on the 2016 squad already have pledged to major programs. Smeltzer is a Texas Tech commit, hurler Montana Parsons is committed to Baylor and fellow pitcher Cody Nesbit will likely go to Houston.

“This is maybe the most talented group I’ve ever played with,” said Shumpert, the son of former big league infielder Terry Shumpert.

Added Smeltzer: “This group compares to the Cape, the only difference is age. There’s guys who could play anywhere.”

Ideal Combination

For all the lure of professional ball, the college selling point is just as important to San Jacinto. The appeals work in tandem, because the San Jac staff has to identify talent that fell through the cracks at bigger schools or sell prep players on the appeal of a steppingstone stop en route to either the draft or the Division I level.

“No one grows up and says, ‘I want to go to San Jac.’ It’s, ‘I want to go to Texas, Rice, or TCU. I want to go to a Florida, a Miami,’” longtime assistant coach Kory Koehler said. “We have to hang back in the wings. When these kids develop and decide pro baseball is something they want to do sooner, rather than be a Longhorn or be ready to play when they do become one, we give them that opportunity.”

But junior college teams play from coast to coast. What has made San Jac stand out? Well, the weather doesn’t hurt. For a Jan. 15 practice, it was sunny and 71 degrees as the Gators practiced until nearly 6 p.m.

“That’s every Northeast kid’s dream, to get out of the North,” said Smeltzer, a New Jersey native. “The ones who are serious about ball, they want to get to warm weather.”

Arrington and staff have made a concerted effort to position San Jacinto as a national program. Hutson is from Kansas, Scafariello is a Connecticut native, Shumpert came from Colorado and January is a Massachusetts product. Many of them don’t even see the school before signing on.

“I’d never been to Texas,” Smeltzer said. “Moving into the apartment was my first day in Texas . . . It takes a lot of trust in the coaches, and they earn it.”

Enhancing that trust is more big league experience. The Gators have former pitcher Woody Williams, a 15-year major league veteran, on board as a volunteer coach. His son Caden is a sophomore infielder/pitcher on the team.

Williams, a Houston area native and UH grad, was an old friend of Arrington (a former Texas A&M standout) from regional summer ball days during the 1980s. Williams also knows the program, playing against San Jac during his time at Wharton and Alvin CCs. Williams saw his fair share of talent during his lengthy MLB career. He was not shy about projecting the talent on San Jac’s roster to the next level.

“It’s pretty unbelievable, to tell you the truth,” Williams said. “It’s more than just nine players and a couple arms. It’s a deep, competitive roster.”

Koehler, the program’s self-appointed elder statesman, chimed in, “In my 16 years, this is the most talented ballclub I’ve ever been around.”

It’s the kind of leap year that could propel the program’s status into even more of a baseball factory. With “sizable” donations from alums like Pettitte, an 8,000-square-foot hitting facility and covered seating is in the works.

As Koehler said of the juco ranks in general: “We’re not the stepbrother anymore.”

Chris Abshire is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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