Navarro baseball preview

Daily Sun photo/Mike Phillips

Navarro’s Bulldogs bring back a ton of talent from the team that made it to the JUCO World Series a year ago, and the Dawgs want to go back to the World Series and win it all this year. Some of the team’s biggest stars pose for a photo at the Navarro batting cage. From left are Stacey Bailey, Jose Gonzalez Jr.,  Corbin Hall, Dawson Woods, Carson Rollins and Cash Rugely.

Hang around Navarro’s baseball team and you will hear the same two words every spring.

Grand Junction.

That’s not a location as much as it is a destination for the Bulldogs, who don’t care anything about skiing or river rafting in Colorado.

There’s only one reason to go there — to play in the JUCO World Series.

Only this year is different. There’s a little more spice, a bit more bite to the words Grand Junction.

Because this year the Bulldogs don’t want to go there — they want to go back there.

“That’s a lot of motivation,” said Navarro coach Matt “Pudge” Podjenski, whose team came oh-so-close to winning it all last year.

Whether you are a sophomore who left his heart in Colorado (with apologies to Tony Bennett) or a new face on one of the finest programs in the nation, the goal’s the same.

“It’s unfinished business,” said sophomore Corbin Hall, a Corsicana High product and pitcher for the Bulldogs.

“We know what we have to do.”

Hall, who went 3-0 in the postseason for the Dawgs last year, and Navarro ace Carson Rollins, who went 7-1 last season, are back to lead the staff, and Podjenski feels with those two arms and the group of new recruits that Navarro will have another strong presence on the mound.

But what Podjenski and everyone who follows this team knows even more is that the Dawgs are loaded.

The big bats are back, and a lineup that can bash with any team in the nation is ready to club its way back to Colorado.

The heart of a batting order that hammered opponents from Texas to the golf course beyond the stadium at Grand Junction (that’s where Stacey Bailey’s monster home run landed last year, soaring onto the fairway on a shot they’re still talking about in Colorado and Corsicana) is back.

These are real numbers: The Bulldogs hit .293 as a team, belted 49 home runs and scored 451 runs a year ago.

Those numbers could improve in 2020.

Honest.

That’s how lethal this lineup looks this year.

Bailey, who was a monster hitter in high school at Kerens, where he was a four-time all-state player, has become five-times the hitter since arriving at Navarro, where his numbers were mind-boggling as a freshman.

Bailey hit .328 and belted 11 homers and drove in 71 runs in just 59 games. He scored 52 runs, and finished the season with 27 extra-base hits and a slugging percentage of .588 with a 1.018 OPS.

What do you think he did in the first game of this season? Yup, he belted a homer.

And get this: Bailey didn’t lead the Bulldogs in home runs. Nope, that was Jose Gonzalez Jr. He hit a dozen homers and drove in 51 runs while scoring 39. Gonzalez batted .329 with a dozen doubles and finished with a .633 slugging percentage and a 1.096 OPS.

He was lethal in the postseason, going deep six times in nine games and driving in 22 runs in the playoffs while scoring 11. His OPS in the playoffs was a whopping 1.743.

If you like Bailey and Gonzalez, and there’s not a pitcher in junior college baseball who does, then you’ll love Cash Rugely, who is even tougher to retire.

Rugely hit .413 with 24 extra-base-hits, including 14 doubles and two triples to go along with his eight homers. He drove in 38 runs and scored a team-leading 60 times last year. He’s tough to get out, and finished with a .502 on-base-percentage  and a .641 slugging percentage, and led the team with a 1.144 OPS.

Catcher Dawson Woods, another Corsicana High School product, just got better and better as a freshman, and finished the season hitting .333 with four homers, 11 doubles and an impressive 43 RBIs. He had a .527 slugging percentage and a .944 OPS. His OPS in the postseason was 1.028 as Woods hit two homers, drove in eight runs and scored 11 in nine playoff games.

Those four make up the heart of the order in a lineup that hits from 1-through-9. Players such as Travis Washburn, who bats at the top of the lineup and Ethan Ruiz, who belted two homers in Friday’s 19-8 win over Temple, are just two more reasons this Bulldogs team looks ready to make another run at Colorado.

Podjenski joins a line of outstanding coaches who have made the program one of the most respected in the nation. He followed Whoa Dill, whose Bulldogs made two trips to Grand Junction, including the 2011 team that won it all. Dill followed the legendary Skip Johnson (now at Oklahoma) who set the early standard at Navarro.

Podjenski is 179-98 (.644 percent) over his first five years at Navarro and 116-34 in conference games after winning four out of five East Zone titles.

Last year’s team went 23-7 in the Region XIV race and finished 41-18 and third in the nation, just missing a national title.

Podjenski is ready for the ultimate run this year.

“We’ve got an experienced team,” he said. “And those guys saw the vision we had last year when we went to Grand Junction, and they want the chance to go back to Grand Junction.

“I like this team,” he said. “I like the makeup of our club. I think they have a tremendous motivation this year. The sophomores lived it and they want to take the freshmen and get them onboard.”

Podjenski’s teams are always close and always play for each other, and this year’s team may take that to a new level.

“It’s a culture and a pride in the program,” he said. “It’s a special bond they have. They embrace our past and our culture and we pass it on from year to year.”

Rugely said the mindset couldn’t be better this season.

“I think because of the experience we have and knowing that we went there last year and want to get back. I think that means everything," he said.

“We brought a lot of players back who made it there last year, and we added a lot of good players who want to get there this year.”

Rollins knows better than most just what kind of run production the Bulldogs are capable of putting up at any given time.

“We have such a strong lineup and last year we had a lot of comeback wins,” he said. “We never feel we are out of a game with the hitters we have on this team. We never get down in a game, because we know we can come back at any time. When I’m pitching, I know that at any point we can come back and that we are always in every game.”

That’s the attitude the Bulldogs have as they start a new year, pointing to the same goal.

Only this year the words have a little more bite.

Grand Junction ...

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