College Sports

William Jessup baseball players take leap of faith with new program

Coach Mike Hankins runs infield practice with infielders as part of William Jessup’s new baseball program that will play its first home game on Friday. The team don’t have a baseball field at the college so they are practicing at Rocklin High.
Coach Mike Hankins runs infield practice with infielders as part of William Jessup’s new baseball program that will play its first home game on Friday. The team don’t have a baseball field at the college so they are practicing at Rocklin High.

Without a baseball field on campus, the players at William Jessup University practice at a nearby high school in Rocklin.

Their coach is a part-time school employee and works off campus.

But when junior pitchers and team leaders Sam Anderson and Joshua Johnson speak, they sound like the luckiest guys on earth.

They are so appreciative that they will be part of history on Friday night when their first-year team at the 1,200-student Christian school plays its inaugural home game.

It makes no difference that it’s in Marysville.

“We’ve been blessed,” said Johnson, a former Rio Linda High School, Sonoma State and American River College pitcher. “We may not have a facility or a history to fall back on, but our guys have a ton of faith in the program. We’re going to do big, big things down the road.”

Anderson, the team’s ace, calls it an honor to be one of the program’s 30 pioneers.

“What a great opportunity to come out here and represent my city and be able to play so close to home,” said Anderson, a 6-foot-7 right-hander and former three-sport standout at Woodcreek High School. “I’m part of a group with endless possibilities.”

William Jessup becomes the third area four-year college with a baseball program, joining Sacramento State and UC Davis. But those are established Division I schools that play some of the nation’s best teams.

Jessup is in the lower-profile NAIA. The Warriors (1-2) are members of the eight-team Golden State Athletic Conference, which consists of other Christian-oriented colleges in Southern California and Arizona.

Their game on Friday night and a doubleheader Saturday at Marysville’s Appeal-Democrat Park will be against Vanguard University of Costa Mesa.

Jessup’s program was founded by former major-league player and manager Jerry Manuel, the team’s coordinator.

He laughs when he says the seed for starting the baseball program was planted during an impromptu meeting more than a decade ago, just after he had been released as the Chicago White Sox manager.

“I was speaking at a prayer breakfast at Memorial Auditorium when Bryce Jessup approached me,” said Manuel, who starred at Cordova High School, was drafted in the first round in 1972 and was named the American League Manager of the Year in 2000.

Bryce Jessup then was the president of William Jessup University, which his father had founded in San Jose in 1939 and Bryce had relocated to Rocklin in 2004.

“He told me he was an old baseball guy who wanted to start a program,” Manuel said. “I saw it as a great opportunity because it’s a passion of mine to see the development not only of good baseball players but good young men.”

But everything was put on hold in 2005, when Manuel was hired as a coach with New York Mets. He then managed the Mets from 2008 to 2010.

Manuel didn’t forget his commitment.

He continued to assist William Jessup with fundraising and logistics while establishing the Jerry Manuel Foundation, a magnet charter school program in Elverta that combines tough academic standards with the teaching of baseball fundamentals.

Manuel has left most of the day-to-day operations at William Jessup to coach Mike Hankins, a former UCLA infield standout who played five years in the New York Yankees’ organization. He has coached for more than 25 years, including five seasons at Lincoln High School, where he led the Fighting Zebras to two league championships.

Hankins, 46, teaches physical education at Glen Edwards Middle School in Lincoln, so when the school day ends, he hops in his car and heads to Rocklin High School, where the team practices.

But Hankins, assistants Samuel Baeder, Richard Sorenson and Paul Jinkins and the players have learned to be flexible.

When the Rocklin High baseball team’s season begins next week, William Jessup will move practices to the evening at James Field in Auburn, which along with Marysville and Yuba College will serve as the Warriors’ home fields.

“He’s young enough to take the bumps and bruises that come with being a new program,” Manuel said of Hankins. “He’s got a great baseball background, and you’ve got to like his values. He’s going to do an awesome job.”

Hankins said he had an urge to get into college coaching.

While being a part-timer has its challenges, he accepts them because he believes the program can be successful.

“This is a good baseball area, and there are a lot of guys who fall through the cracks,” Hankins said. “Hopefully we’ll find some of those diamonds in the rough and develop them into really good players.”

While Hankins has used his wide-ranging contacts in Southern California, the Bay Area and Nevada to recruit the bulk of a roster that includes 16 freshmen, Johnson and Anderson are among several homegrown veterans he looks to for leadership.

Johnson already carries himself like a coach.

He showed up at Manuel’s academy two years ago out of curiosity and because it’s just a mile from his mother’s house. Manuel soon had Johnson coaching his academy players.

“Jerry is a fantastic person,” Johnson said. “He’s been a mentor, a friend and a positive male role model for me.”

Though he was disappointed to take the loss in last Saturday’s first game of a doubleheader at San Diego Christian in William Jessup’s season-opening series, Johnson was ecstatic when freshmen Zach Ricciardi, the starter, and Layne Henderson, the closer, combined for the program’s first win, 9-8, in the nightcap.

“We older guys realize we’re helping set the direction of the program,” Johnson said. “But the legacy will be built by the incredible talent of these younger guys who are going to be here for four years.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.