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September 27, 2022

BASEBALL: Wagle, South Valley players keeping SJCC on the map

Regional playoffs begin May 4
SAN JOSE — As a young coach, Morgan Hill native Erik Wagle has led a charmed career since joining the baseball program at San Jose City College two years ago.

Under manager Doug Robb, Wagle’s Jaguars came within a game of reaching the state Final Four in 2009. They are on pace to surpass that feat this spring and possibly capture a Golden State Conference championship along the way.

The Jaguars don’t have a home field, but they do have a scout-alluring roster that includes several names you may hear in Division I, minor and professional leagues soon enough.

So no, Wagle, 29, hasn’t exactly been paying his dues as an associate coach. But he didn’t begin his SJCC stint on third base either.

Wagle got a head start on recruiting in 2008, his last season as an assistant coach at Live Oak High School. The Acorns won their first and only Central Coast Section championship that spring.

“I was fortunate to see a lot of talented players that year,” he said. “I had a good idea of what kind of players the team needed, so I kept my eyes open.”

Wagle did not have to look far. Among the incoming class that would help take the Jaguars where no SJCC had gone before, Wagle recruited standouts Danny Nelson of Sobrato High School and San Benito’s Zach Canez, who batted .298 and .279, respectively, and drove in 39 runs combined as freshman.

Last summer, Wagle helped lure Matthew Cummins — Live Oak’s 2008 Senior Athlete of the Year — from West Valley Community College and brought in Sobrato infielder Billy Birrell, San Benito catcher Kyle Zozaya, Gilroy High School ace Jacob Dexter and Valley Christian shortstop David Garcia of Gilroy.

Call them the South Valley Seven or Wagle’s Wunderkinds. They are part of a team that was 11-5 in conference play going into this week. Whatever you want to call them, call them a good fit.

“They grew up playing travel pall, Morgan Hill Pony Baseball, Little League together. They all knew each other,” Wagle said. “Their small-town connections are amazing. Most of them had a good relationship before they even got here.”

Success and rivalries they had during high school have only strengthened their bond. Cummins and Garcia compare CCS championship rings.

“His is bigger, but I have two, so I win,” Garcia said.

Nelson and Cummins placed a bet on last year’s LOHS-SHS football game, which the Bulldogs won 27-6.

“My pocket was 10 bucks lighter after that,” Cummins said. “Being in college, that kind of hurt.”

Dexter is learning to forgive Garcia for not going to Gilroy High School.

“I don’t think him and the Gilroy coaches liked me much for that,” Garcia said.

Each of them look up to Canez as a leader, Wagle said.

It’s a special team; the kind of which they will never be a part of again once they go their separate ways. How many times after high school can you say you play competitive ball with guys you grew up with?

“It’s bigger than anything I’ve been a part of,” said the compact Cummins, who boasts a 4.44 ERA, .468 on-base percentage, 18 RBIs and team-best 11 doubles in the No. 3 spot. “Coach Wagle’s helped us look at playing baseball differently. I’m treating this as a gift; something that can be taken away at any moment.”

Nelson felt a new level of camaraderie last spring after the Jaguars’ season ended in the Super Regional finals.

“I’ve never been a crier, but I broke down,” he said. “The connection you have with your teammates at this level is just amazing — way different than high school. You play tons of baseball together; it doesn’t get better than that.”

Making the transition from high school was not easy. Cummins, a 10-game winner as a senior at LOHS, learned he can’t rely as much on his fastball. Nelson, a once contact-savvy lead-off hitter, is now the Jaguars’ cleanup man, batting .402 with a .589 slugging percentage. He has played error-free in center field, starting next to Canez — .277 avg., 22 RBIs — in left.

“Danny and Matt have become two of our go-to guys,” Wagle said. “They’re immensely talented and have amazing baseball IQs. Zach and Billy are pretty savvy, too. Billy’s going to make more of an impact next year.”

Dexter is doing so now. The 6-foot-1 lefty is part of a four-man rotation — a rarity in junior college — with Cummins and is getting by with a 5.90 ERA and 2-2 record. He has 14 strikeouts.

“The margin for error is a lot smaller,” Dexter said. “I found that out right away.”

Because of injuries, Zozaya has seen ample playing time for a freshman. Dexter likes working with him.

“We’re pretty much on the same page,” Dexter said. “Our catchers have got tore up, so he’s been important.”

Listed at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, Garcia is making the most of what could be his final season of amateur ball. His team-best five home runs, .302 average, 18 RBIs and .853 fielding percentage at shortstop have caught the eye of several MLB clubs. He wants to get drafted this year.

“Coach [Wagle] does an awesome job getting scouts to come look at us,” Garcia said. “The first time I played in front of them, I definitely tried to do too much. It’s crazy getting those kinds of looks.”

The Jaguars could be turning more heads once the regional playoffs begin May 4. The Super Regional Tournament will start May 14 and, with that, this group of South Valley players’ one shot at a fitting end to their special season.

“Making the Final Four would be nice. I think we can definitely do it,” Cummins said. “It’d be a letdown if we didn’t achieve our best.”

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