WICHITA, Kan. – For one week at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, the NJCAA National Team played against some of baseball's top amateur and former players in the 82nd National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series. Despite a disappointing ending with a loss in the tournament quarterfinals, the experience was one that will be forever etched in the memories of the players, coaches and staff.
"It's been an honor and a privilege," said head coach Zach Crabtree from Murray State (Okla.). "These are great baseball players but they're even better young men. They've been where they're supposed to be on time, they're respectful and they're just top-notch young men that have represented the NJCAA with nothing but class."
The NJCAA National Team's class was not just clichéd praise from a coach. Their respect for the game and their opponents was noted by all those present in Wichita, including the NBC World Series staff who presented the national team with the tournament's Sportsmanship Award.
"It was just a really humbling experience being around these young men and the coaching staff that we had," Crabtree said. "Rick Hitt – the president of our coaches association – did a heck of a job. I have a great amount of respect for that man and all the work that he does putting this stuff together."
It wasn't just the NJCAA National Team's sportsmanship that earned recognition. Despite playing in only four games, they also claimed the tournament's Best Offensive Team Award. The squad hit for a tournament-high .369 average with 32 RBIs – ranking eighth in the 30-team field. They compiled a .496 slugging percentage which featured eight doubles, two triples and two home runs.
Leading the national team's offensive production was Rhett Aplin from Seminole State (Fla.). With a team-high 10 hits, the Florida State signee batted for a .556 average with a double, triple and four RBIs. Although Aplin excelled throughout the tournament, he expressed gratitude for just having the opportunity to be part of the team.
"It's a privilege," he said. "A lot of people don't get to come out here and do this, so for me to be chosen for this team is amazing. It was great playing with a bunch of great guys and getting to compete against some of the best players in the world."
Outfielder Mitchell Morimoto provided the NJCAA National Team with a consistent bat in the lineup, ranking fourth in the tournament with a .615 batting average. The Mesa (Ariz.) product went 6-for-13 at the plate, totaling three RBIs and six runs scored. Heading to Arizona next season, the experience in Wichita is one that Morimoto believes will help him greatly as he enters the next stage of his career.
"It helped me mature a little bit," Morimoto said. "In summer ball, I was in a slump and I got out of it playing here so that's great. This helped me get ready for Arizona and I'm really looking forward to showing it."
Brylie Ware from Neosho County (Kan.) was recognized for his performance at the tournament with the Outstanding Local Player of the Year Award. The Oklahoma signee and 2016 NJCAA DI Player of the Year was 6-for-15 from the plate with a home run and four RBIs. Despite the tremendous effort however, it is the bond with his teammates that Ware will treasure the most.
"It's been a blast," he said. "It didn't feel like we'd only been together for a couple of weeks. It felt like we'd know each other for years because we all mesh so well."
Other top offensive performers for the national team included Cisco (Texas) shortstop Jax Biggers who led the team with three doubles and five RBIs. Outfielder Mason Mallard from Tyler (Texas) posted a .357 batting average with a double, triple, four RBIs and two stolen bases, while Iowa Western's Jared Gates tallied four RBIs on four hits.
There were a number of pitchers that enjoyed success on the mound in Wichita, but none produced an effort as noteworthy as Jared Goff. The Tyler left-hander dealt five hitless innings with seven strikeouts in the national team's 10-0 shutout of the Sterling Xpress.
The highlight of the NJCAA National Team's run in the tournament came in an 11-10 victory over the Kansas Stars – a team made up of former MLB legends. Starting on the mound for the Stars was seven-time Cy Young Award winner and 11-time All-Star Roger Clemens, a former NJCAA student-athlete in his own right from San Jacinto-North (Texas).
"It was a dream come true not only to step on the field with some of those guys that we grew up watching but being able to pick their minds when we were on the bases," Ware said. "It was all about having fun and doing what I know how to do and not trying to do too much. That's what I've tried to instill in myself and just playing with these guys helps you get to that point."
Pitching four solid innings in the victory, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M pitcher Brad Kinsey had the opportunity to face some of the game's elite hitters. The lineup included 12-year pro Adam LaRoche who played at Fort Scott (Kan.) and Seminole State (Okla.) where he was named MVP of the NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series in 2000.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me," Kinsey said. "Getting a chance to play against the big leaguers was honestly a childhood dream come to life."
Despite the number of notable performances put on display during the tournament, the players will look back at the opportunity as much more than a chance they had to showcase their abilities. It also gave them a chance to play both with and against some of the most talented amateur players in the world.
"It was great playing with the guys, meeting new kids from all over the country and seeing what other competition is out there in two-year colleges," Morimoto said. "It was a great experience and I had a great time."
"It was a lot of fun just getting to play with some of the best players from two-year colleges," Goff said. "It's been a great experience just being around guys from two-year colleges who know what it's like playing at a two-year college. It prepares you for the next level just getting to play on the same field as the top players in the nation."
"The guys have the love of the game that you do and the drive that you do – trying to play at a higher level or get drafted," Kinsey said. "It's just great getting to play with guys that have the same goal that you do."
Exiting the NBC World Series with a 12-8 quarterfinals loss to the San Diego Force, the NJCAA National Team went 3-1 in Wichita.