Returning pitchers are the key to Saddleback’s success this season

Saddleback will play San Diego City College to start its 2016 season. The Gauchos finished with a 27-16 record last season and lost in the third round of the playoffs to Palomar College. (Archive Photo)

The Gauchos finished with a 27-16 record last season and lost in the third round of the playoffs to Palomar College. (Archive Photo)

 Saddleback College’s baseball team began their new season this past weekend and with last years rollercoaster of a season behind them, the Gauchos hope they can do better and maybe even capture a state championship.

Saddleback battled key injuries and a tough Orange Empire Conference schedule, in which they finished with a losing record of 10-11, in last seasons campaign. The Gauchos almost didn’t make the playoffs, but after just eking into the postseason, the team exploded.

Saddleback swept San Bernardino Valley College with two blowout wins, won a tense three-game series with OEC champion Golden West College and then ultimately were swept by Palomar College in the third round, ending up with an overall record of 27-16.

“I think we struggled with our pitching staff initially. A couple of guys got hurt that we thought were going to carry a big load for us,” said head coach Sommer McCartney. “Once we solidified our rotation we seemed to kind of take off from there. The playoffs were fun, we had a good run.”

Even with the solid playoff performance, McCartney wants the team to do better this season in conference play. He also believes with a nice mix of returning players and incoming freshmen that the team should be good this season.

“There were some close games that we should’ve done a better job on [last season]. Baseball’s funny … we played our best baseball in the playoffs,” McCartney said. “I think we have a lot of depth [this year]. A lot of guys can play multiple positions and I don’t feel like you lose anything. I’m kind of curious how this season unfolds.”

Notable incoming freshmen include pitchers Michael Carr and Brandon Helmick and outfielder Adam Gordon. All three players are from South Orange County with Carr attending San Juan Hills High School, Helmick attending El Toro High School and Gordon attending Capistrano Valley High School.

Other key players this season will be returning starters like first baseman Ryan Fitzpatrick, outfielder Jared Donahoe and injury-plagued Luke Jarvis, who has had wrist surgery the past two seasons.

Fitzpatrick put together a great season last year, crushing three home runs and 14 doubles, driving in 26 runs, all while adding a .281 batting average. Donahoe played less games but still hit five doubles and collected 12 RBIs.

“Some of the guys that were backup players last year have stepped up and they’re competing for starting roles,” McCartney said. “I think we have potential and I am excited to see these guys play.”

That potential mostly comes in the form of pitching. Saddleback is bringing back a group of pitchers that all had a big impact last season. The group includes Domnique Key, Cameron Aufderheide, Jordan Scheftz, John Sheaks, Jackson Rees and Steven Young.

Key and Aufderheide are at the top of the rotation, as they led the team in innings pitched last season with 79.2 and 72.2 respectively. Key also had a team-high 49 strikeouts and a 2.37 ERA, with Aufderheide contributing a 3.22 ERA and only giving up 12 walks. Sheaks had an outstanding 1.93 ERA in 18.2 IP, Young struck out 11 batters in 16.2 IP, Scheftz had a strikeout/walks ratio of 2/1 and Rees had a team-low 0.66 ERA in 13.2 IP.

“I really hope that these guys know how to get it done, have good poise under pressure and they aren’t going to get rattled in a playoff game,” McCartney said. “I’m hoping that that leadership and that experience will carry us.”

Saddleback started their year by defeating San Diego City College 12-2 and 9-0 in consecutive games. SDCC head coach, Chris Brown, coached at Saddleback from 1990-1998.

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