AZUSA, Calif.-- Although he’s enjoyed more success than any other baseball coach in Azusa Pacific history, Paul Svagdis is still molding his approach. The Cougar coach, who’s led Azusa Pacific to two NAIA World Series appearances in his 11 seasons, could easily try to replicate the recipe he’s used in the past, especially with a team with as much talent as his 2014 Cougars possess. But instead, he’s learned to start every season from scratch, letting the team take on its own identity as the Cougars move into their second season in the Pacific West Conference.
“We are trying to learn to start from zero. We just came back from a coaching convention, and former Major League Baseball coach Tony La Russa talked about one of the things he learned was when he was with the White Sox. In spring training, after a really good season, he was trying to build off the year prior. But he went out there and it was a different team with a different makeup and they didn’t have the same level of success,” said Svagdis.
“He learned at that point, that he needs to understand that no matter what happened the year prior, is that you have to start at zero. I really took that to heart because people have a tendency to try to replicate their past success, but every team is different. So now I don’t even think about last year’s finish. I’m focused on this year and how these players can become the best team possible.”
Now, with a rebuilt lineup and a deep pitching staff, Svagdis is hoping that the Cougars’ second season in the Pacific West Conference can yield the same results his program had grown accustomed to throughout his first 11 years at Azusa Pacific.
The Cougars return All-PacWest outfielder Matt Kimmel, and four pitchers that logged over 40 innings of work with the program in 2013. Three position players that tabbed significant time in their first seasons of collegiate ball are also back for their second year with the team, while a slew of talented transfers look to bolster a lineup and rotation that should contend for a conference championship. And while this team has the makings of one that could lead the Cougars to their fourth conference championship in the last eight years, anyone that has been around the program in the past decade knows it’s more about the process than the results, something Svagdis preaches routinely.
“I believe the most important thing is for each player to maximize his strengths. The record will work itself out as long as we play the way we need to. It’s a work in progress for the new guys, but the returners are starting to figure out. We have some older guys that are new to our program and I expect them to pick it up quickly. It will take a little bit for us as a unit to pull it together, and once that happens we’ll know what kind of team we have.” Said Svagdis.
Although the Cougars will return five of their seven leaders in innings pitched in 2013, the rotation will have a new look in the 2014 season. With former Biola head coach John Verhoeven joining the staff as the pitching coach, and with a number of new arms, Azusa Pacific’s biggest strength going into the 2014 campaign seems to be its pitching.
Verhoeven led Biola to five Golden State Athletic Conference championships and three NAIA World Series appearances. The former Major League pitcher registered a 546-301 record with the Eagles, and was a 5-time GSAC Coach of the Year. Now instead of coaching against Svagdis, he’ll be working alongside him.
“I think with Verhoeven, it’s really been a big benefit, not only to the pitching staff but to our team. His wealth of knowledge, and ability to develop pitchers is great,” said Svagdis. “It’s been a great fall, and I really like what I’ve seen in the pitchers we have. You never know about health, so we will train six guys, with the expectation that four will be starters and the other two with key roles as closers or setup guys. We have a really nice blend in the pitchers we have. We have some power guys, some guys with great movement, and some sinker, slider types of guys.”
Last season Verhoeven’s pitching staff at Biola ranked third in the Golden State Athletic Conference in earned run average at 3.68 along with a conference-best 378 strikeouts in 423 innings. One of the leaders of that squad was freshman Josh Staumont, who also made his way from La Mirada to Azusa in the offseason. In his first season of collegiate ball Staumont led the GSAC with 109 strikeouts, in 102.1 innings over 17 starts. This year he’ll be one of the team’s top starters.
“Josh is a power pitcher with a good breaking ball. He’s also a hard worker and a great teammate. He has a lot of confidence, but carries himself with humility. I really value what he brings to the table, not just physically, but as a leader,” said Svagdis.
Sophomore Joel Belk led the Cougars in ERA in 2014, compiling a 4-0 record with three complete games to go along with a pair of saves. And after splitting time at DH, first base, and pitcher, Belk will spend the 2014 season exclusively on the mound.
Zach Hedges is returning for his junior season. The Damien High School product led the Cougars with 43 strikeouts, while only walking 17 in his sophomore season. Last March, Hedges had consecutive nine-inning outings where he combined for three earned runs and 14 strikeouts in a pair of wins. Now, after two strong seasons to open his college career, Hedges is primed for another productive season in a deep rotation.
The Cougars also added Arizona State transfer Adam McCreery to the rotation. The former 14th round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins, who stands at 6-foot-8, spent two years with the Sun Devils, tossing 51.1 innings in 17 appearances with 45 strikeouts.
“Zach and Joel have been really great for us. Not only are they talented pitchers, they’re great leaders in the clubhouse. I expect them to continue to pitch well for us as they continue to develop,” said Svagdis. “Adam has pitched in some really big games at Arizona State. He brings a ton of experience, and gives us versatility as a left-handed pitcher.”
Junior Jacob Cage will make his return to action after redshirting the 2013 season. As a sophomore Cage spent the majority of the season as the team’s No. 1 starter, leading the Cougars to victories in 12 of his 15 starts. He also finished the season with a 71-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Sophomore Nate Namanny threw 57.2 innings as a true freshman last year, and gives another left-handed option for Verhoeven. Namanny compiled a 4-4 record with one complete game in six starts. True freshman Wyatt Wood and junior transfer Jonathan Velasco from College of the Dessert are the Cougars’ other two southpaws.
The Cougars also have the luxury of a bullpen that logged significant time in 2013, with much of it coming down the stretch during Azusa Pacific’s successful run to end the season. With seniors like Hunter Brown and Kyle Pine, along with sophomore Royal Bradley, Svagdis won’t be forced to throw anyone that hasn’t pitched in a crucial situation.
“The depth of our pitching isn’t full of inexperienced guys. New players go through ups and downs, but thankfully for us, a lot of that happened last year and they’ve gone through that learning curve,” said Svagdis. “There are a handful of pitchers that had to pitch in competitive situations, and we did well in those moments. It provides experience on the bench, and when an opportunity presents itself we have multiple guys that can step up.”
With seniors like Kimmel and Joseph Daris, the Cougar outfield should continue to be a strong point on defense and in the lineup. Kimmel, a preseason All-PacWest player and 2012 NAIA All-American, returns for his final season at Azusa Pacific after a year in which he led the Cougars in almost every statistical offensive category.
As a junior he batted .324 with a team-high 27 RBIs, 15 doubles, and three triples. He paced the Cougars with a .913 OPS, and finished No. 2 on the team with five home runs. Daris had an injury-shortened season in 2013, playing in just 10 games. This season he’ll be the Cougars’ leadoff hitter, giving Azusa Pacific one of the fastest players in all of college baseball a multi-faceted threat at the top of the order.
“Kimmel and Daris will be big, not only defensively, but as two of our most important pieces in the lineup. I expect Kimmel to have a big season. I think our lineup will give him some more protection, and with a guy like Daris in front of him, he should be able to drive in a good amount of runs. We want Daris to get on base as much as possible because of his ability to run the bases. He’s one of the fastest players we’ve had, and he’s a huge weapon for us,” said Svagdis.
With Kimmel and Daris occupying left and center field, the Cougars will look to platoon the right field spot. Mitch Dergazarian played in 33 games as a true freshman, and had some big hits in his first year with the team. Transfer Ryan Santana and freshman Sean Aspinall also give Azusa Pacific options in right field.
“We don’t have right field set. On a given day it could be Dergazarian or Santana. Mitch had a good freshman season and Santana has come along quite a bit since getting here. Who will play depends on whether we’re facing lefties and righties. I see Aspinall getting a lot of time against left-handed pitchers, but it’s a fluid situation and as the year progresses we will see how it goes,” said Svagdis.
Domenic Biagini spent the 2013 season between outfield and designated hitter. Now, after leading the Cougars in home runs in his first year at Azusa Pacific, will be an important piece offensively as a senior.
The Azusa Pacific infield features new faces at first base and second base, with returners occupying shortstop, third base, and behind the plate. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo transfer Jordan Brower will take over duties at first, while Blake James, a Citrus College product, will open the year at second base.
“Brower is a middle of the lineup guy, same with James. They have the ability to drive the ball in the gap. We’re packing them in with Kimmel, a guy that’s had a lot of experience and I think they give our lineup a nice mix of power and average,” said Svagdis.
Last year Dusty Sanderson and Andrew Carrillo split time at shortstop, and headed into the 2014 season, the same seems to be the case. As a freshman Carrillo started 23 times and stole nine bases. Sanderson started 29 times as a sophomore, and recorded nine RBIs with a .257 batting average. Defensively he went 12 straight games without an error while tabbing 78 assists.
“Carrillo and Sanderson are really competing at short stop, and both will get reps. They each bring something different to the table for us, and it’s a luxury to have two guys like that at one position,” said Svagdis.
Talented sophomore Danny Martin will open the season at third base, and after a season in which he started 17 times, will have be relied upon with a larger role this season. Danny Gonzales appeared in 43 games in 2014, driving in 22 runs and hitting three home runs. This season he’ll split time between third base and at designated hitter.
“We have the fortune of having a lot of guys that can come off the bench and provide an offensive spark. Gonzales has been doing a good job at third, and we want to make sure he gets enough at-bats. Martin is a really good baseball player, and he can play multiple positions in the infield,” said Svagdis.
Joe Huthsing was the Cougars’ every day catcher as a true freshman. The Doe Pueblos High School graduate started 41 times behind the dish and threw out 17-would be base stealers. He also tallied 32 hits, 10 RBIs, and 11 runs. Joining him at catcher will be transfer Andy Bissel .
“Joe had a really good season for us behind the plate. He’s got a strong arm, and really came along. I expect Andy to get some time back there this season. Catching is a tough job, and takes a lot out of you, so it’s nice to have two guys back there that can get the job done,” said Svagdis.
Azusa Pacific opens the season on Saturday with a home double header against Cal State San Bernardino before traveling to face another CCAA school in Chico State the following weekend. The Cougars will then take on Concordia in Irvine on Feb. 11 before facing the Eagles at home on Feb. 18 to open a 15-game home stand. After a home game against Biola on Feb. 24, the Cougars will kick off the PacWest season against Academy of Art on Feb. 28.
“I love the competitiveness of our schedule. After our first two weekends, we will learn a lot about ourselves. Our goal is to compete in our conference and over the first four weeks we will know where we stand. I’m looking forward to that and looking forward to both the wins and the losses and seeing how these guys respond,” said Svagdis.
After home series against Holy Names and Fresno Pacific, the Cougars will play UC San Diego on March 24 and 25 to close out the home stand. The team will then open an 18-game road trip at Point Loma before traveling to Hawai’i for four-game sets against Hawai’i Pacific and Hawai’i Hilo.
The Cougars will return home with a double header against UC San Diego on March 26th, and after a non-conference tilt against Cal Poly Pomona, will close out the regular season at home against California Baptist on May 1-5.
The Cougars will continue a long-standing tradition with Throwback Thursdays at each of their home Thursday night games this season. Every Friday night at the Cougar Baseball Complex will be Military Night, honoring active and retired servicemen, with a veteran throwing out the first pitch in each of those games. Azusa Pacific’s final home game of the year will not only be senior day, but Latin American Music Day as well.
March 13 vs. Fresno Pacific (70’s Theme)
May 1 vs. California Baptist (80’s Theme)
Feb. 28 vs. Academy of Art
March 7 vs. Holy Names
March 14 vs. Fresno Pacific
May 2 vs. California Baptist
SENIOR DAY/LATIN AMERICAN MUSIC DAY
May 5 vs. California Baptist
Eighteen of Azusa Pacific’s home games will be broadcast live on Azusa Pacific’s live video channel. The pay-per-view stream, which costs $7.95 per game, with a season pass available at a discount, can be found by Clicking Here.
Feb. 24 vs Biola
Feb. 28 vs. Academy of Art (DH)
March 1 vs. Academy of Art (DH)
March 7 vs. Holy Names (DH)
March 8 vs. Holy Names (DH)
March 13 vs. Fresno Pacific
March 14 vs. Fresno Pacific
March 15 vs. Fresno Pacific (DH)
March 19 vs. Biola
May 1 vs. California Baptist
May 2 vs. California Baptist
May 5 vs. California Baptist(DH)