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BALANCE OF POWER: Deep lineup, strong pitching fuel Leopards for Region V tourney opener vs. Odessa

Updated: May 13, 2023


MAN WITH THE PLAN: Temple College 25th-year head baseball coach Craig McMurtry speaks to his team at practice Tuesday in preparation for the NJCAA Region V Tournament in Weatherford. The Leopards (35-17), who went 22-10 in NTJCAC play for second place behind sixth-ranked Weatherford, battle Odessa (34-21) in a first-round game scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Roger Williams Ballpark. The champion of the eight-team, double-elimination event will advance to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE


The 2023 baseball season has been a successful one for Temple College, which is ready to compete in the NJCAA Region V Tournament after missing postseason play last year.

The Leopards have a 35-17 overall record and went 22-10 in Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference action, finishing as runner-up to runaway champion and sixth-ranked Weatherford. TC begins the double-elimination regional tournament Friday, battling Odessa (34-21) at 7 p.m. at Weatherford College’s Roger Williams Ballpark.

Examining the statistical report, it’s easy to see why the Temple team of 25th-year head coach Craig McMurtry has played such a stellar brand of all-around ball: depth, balance and versatility.

No fewer than 13 players have made key contributions on offense and defense. Sophomore first baseman Simon Larranaga leads the Leopards with 12 home runs, 88 total bases and a .693 slugging percentage while batting .354, and freshman third baseman and Texas A&M signee Cade Climie paces the club with a .369 batting average and 40 runs batted in.

Freshman center fielder Trent Rucker (.329) leads TC with 54 hits, 43 runs, three triples and 14 stolen bases. Sophomore right fielder Colby Christian has five homers and 32 RBI, sophomore left fielder Dawson French is hitting .339 with 12 steals and freshman second baseman Cole Tabor is batting .312 with 24 RBI.

Sophomore designated hitter Hogan Heller (23 RBI) paces Temple with 11 doubles and 29 walks, and freshman first baseman Lance Cantrell is hitting .305 with 19 RBI.

“I think our depth is better – not really depth as far as crazy numbers of players, but depth as far as through the lineup,” McMurtry said during the Leopards’ practice Tuesday evening. “You’ve got Rucker leading off, then Tabor has his moments, Climie’s had a really good year, Simon’s been good, Hogan’s been decent, French jumps in and Colby’s come on late.”

And although their offensive numbers are modest, sophomore shortstop Raithen Malone and the catching tandem of freshman Ty Marthiljohni and sophomore Bryan Williams (Temple High School) have played sharp, reliable defense.

From a pitching perspective, sophomore right-hander Luis Martinez-Gomez has been a workhorse for TC’s starting rotation, leading the Leopards in wins with a 7-3 record while working a team-high 56 2/3 innings.

Sophomore righty Clay Westbrook will miss the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury after going 6-3 with 51 strikeouts, but freshman righty and Georgia Tech transfer Christian Okerholm has helped picked up the slack, producing a 5-0 record and a team-best 2.16 earned-run average with 43 strikeouts and only 32 hits allowed in 50 innings.

Freshman righty Garrett Baumann has been outstanding with a 4-0 record, 2.17 ERA and a team-leading 59 strikeouts against 13 walks in 45 2/3 innings, while freshman lefty Tyler Cooper has used his sharp-breaking curveball to rack up eight saves, a 2.70 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings for a staggering figure of 14.6 punchouts per nine innings.

Temple must win at least four games during four or five days to beat out seven other teams for the regional championship and earn its fourth trip – and first since 2018 – to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Along with the aforementioned pitchers, the Leopards likely will need positive contributions from talented-but-inconsistent lefties Dash Albus and Joel Burgess Jr. and freshman righty reliever Colin Huspen to succeed in the grueling format.

“I think there is the capability of having enough arms. Always the big question mark is, are they going to pitch to their potential in those games?” said McMurtry, the former major league pitcher who oversees Temple’s mound staff.

Host Weatherford (46-9) is the tournament favorite after going 29-3 in conference play to finish seven games ahead of TC. The Leopards went 1-3 against the stout Coyotes, who have the NTJCAC Hitter of the Year in Robin Villeneuve and the Pitcher of the Year in Ryne Rodriguez.

“I think Weatherford had eight first-team all-conference guys,” McMurtry said.

McLennan (38-18) is the NTJCAC’s No. 3 seed and the No. 4 is Cisco (35-21), which tied for fifth but replaced Ranger in the regional field after Ranger self-reported an NJCAA violation on player eligibility.

Ninth-ranked New Mexico JC (43-12) won the Western Junior College Athletic Conference championship by five games over Midland (41-13). No. 3 seed Odessa and No. 4 seed New Mexico Military Institute (38-18) also represent the WJCAC.

Temple's pitching staff will contend with Odessa’s prolific offense. The Wranglers feature Liam MacDonald (.418, 15 home runs, 77 RBI), Chase Diggins (.434, 34 RBI, 20 steals) and Camden Colman (.376, six homers, 56 RBI).

The Temple-Odessa winner will play the New Mexico-Cisco victor at 7 p.m. Saturday. The championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, with a second title game to played at 1 p.m. Tuesday if necessary.

The Leopards last captured the Region V championship in 2010. They made it back to Grand Junction in 2018, taking third place in the regional before finalists McLennan and Cisco were controversially removed from the tournament because of an on-field altercation that resulted in numerous ejections and suspensions.

Two major factors in Temple’s success this season are Martinez-Gomez’s effective pitching and Larranaga’s impressive slugging. Both players have been pleasant surprises in their own ways.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Martinez-Gomez is from Pomona, California in the greater Los Angeles area and pitched as a freshman last year at nearby San Bernardino Valley College, compiling 69 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. However, he wanted a fresh scene and a new challenge.

“I told one of my old coaches (Aaron Weintraub) at my junior college that I wanted to leave and go find a different school, a different environment,” Martinez-Gomez said. “He started reaching out to schools for me and reached out here and had a couple phone calls with (TC assistant coach Nathan) Train.”

Martinez-Gomez’s season highlight was his performance against rival and previous nemesis McLennan on April 8 in Waco. He pitched a four-hit shutout with six strikeouts as the Leopards won 3-0 to clinch a series victory over the Highlanders.

Martinez-Gomez said “my phone got blown up” by recruiters from four-year programs after that McLennan game. He’s considering NCAA Division II power Angelo State along with receiving interest from several Division I teams.

“This year one of the biggest changes I’ve had was just to be in the (strike) zone more. I kind of threw away having a lot of Ks per nine and just tried to be efficient,” said Martinez-Gomez, who’s pitched three complete games and limited batters to 42 hits in 56 2/3 innings. “Strikeouts are cool and all, but it doesn’t help if you’re out of the game by the fifth.

“I always try to expect great things for myself. I feel like that’s a good way to set goals,” he added. “I feel like I’ve really improved from last year, and that was the main goal. Being here in Texas, it’s been fun and I’ve met a lot of great guys.”

McMurtry said Martinez-Gomez is Temple’s likely starting pitcher in the regional opener against Odessa. He’s also one of the Leopards’ three second-team selections on the NTJCAC’s all-conference squad, joining powerful third baseman Climie and dominant reliever Baumann.

Martinez-Gomez’s performance and consistency have impressed McMurtry, who’s relied on the slender Californian to pitch deep into the first game of TC’s second conference doubleheader each week.

“We really didn’t know what we were going to get with Luis coming in from California and just getting some word-of-mouth stuff on him from somebody who saw him last year and saying, ‘Hey, this kid’s got a good arm and good stuff and he’d be a good pickup for you,’” McMurtry said. “I don’t want to say we were surprised; I think we were just pleased he came.

“His fastball’s in the upper 80s and low 90s, and sometimes 93 or 94. The big thing is he’s got some life to his pitches. He’s got movement, he’s got a great breaking ball that he commands and he goes out there and competes. That’s the biggest thing you want out of your guys, that they don’t just quit when things get tough.”

Martinez-Gomez said he’s enjoyed improving his craft under the tutelage of McMurtry, the Troy graduate who pitched eight major league seasons and in 1983 was second in voting for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

“I feel like Coach McMurtry just keeps it real. He just gives it to you straight,” Martinez-Gomez said. “He doesn’t really baby you. He tells you how it is. I really appreciate his honesty. He’s been a great guy for me.”

As for imposing first baseman Larranaga, his contributions last year as a TC freshman were limited. In 29 games and 62 at-bats, he hit .210 with two home runs and 13 RBI.

The 6-4, 215-pound Larranaga – called “Big Cat” by his teammates, perhaps as a nod to former major league slugger Andres Galarraga – entered the offseason knowing he was capable of greater production and used that as motivation to improve his skills.

Larranaga's results support his renewed commitment. Along with a .354 average and team-leading 12 homers, he’s driven in 38 runs, scored 36, drawn 26 walks, stolen six bases and posted a .472 on-base percentage.

“I work hard every single day as much as I can, and I work on the little things,” he said. “I think the difference from last year to this year is definitely a bigger mental side, maturity-wise. I just feel more confidence, and the team has helped me stay more confident in myself, too.”

Larranaga has homered twice in a game three times this season, including conference matchups with Hill and North Central Texas. He blasted a combined four homers in Temple’s final two NTJCAC series, helping him attain something he set his sights on before the season.

“At the beginning of the year I had a notecard and I put my goals on it. I actually did reach all my goals,” Larranaga said. “I wanted to have 12 home runs this year, and I got to it. Hopefully I can get a few more.”

Partially because left-handed hitter Cantrell often starts at first base against right-handed pitchers, Larranaga has only the fifth-most at-bats in TC’s lineup. However, he's still four homers ahead of Climie’s eight and has tallied 45 hits, trailing only Rucker and Climie.

According to Larranaga, sacrificing a bit of playing time and a few at-bats is part of what has made the Leopards’ team-centered approach work well.

“I feel like we always play together, and if anyone’s down at all, there’s always someone picking them up, always picking up the next guy,” said Larranaga, who led Mont Belvieu Barbers Hill to the Class 5A state championship in 2021 along with longtime teammate Malone, Temple’s slick-fielding shortstop who’s also contributed at the plate by driving in 20 runs. “We’re always happy for each other, no matter who’s doing well and performing for the team. There’s really good chemistry.”

Temple’s 2021 team won 39 games and made a run in the regional tournament but was eliminated by talent-laden McLennan, the eventual JUCO World Series champion.

With his Leopards ready to take another shot at returning to the junior college baseball mecca that is Grand Junction, McMurtry believes that their mixture of competitiveness and cohesiveness gives them a realistic opportunity to contend for the Region V crown.

“We’ve got some good personalities that mesh pretty good. The guys get along. They get on each other but in a fun way, and they take it the right way,” said the 63-year-old McMurtry, who’s completing a quarter-century as the Leopards’ head coach and his 10th year as TC’s athletic director. “They’ve been competitive as far as their attitude and the way they handle themselves and go about their business.

“They still have fun at practice – sometimes too much fun as far as I’m concerned. But they make it fun and they push each other. It has been a fun year and a good year. Coach (Frank) Kellner and Coach Train have enjoyed the guys and they recruited most of them, so they did a good job of getting guys in here who get along and work together.”

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