Rob Willson doesn’t have to endure this.
He could be working in his garden, working on his tan or working his way through the meat section of the grocery store before grilling and chilling. Instead, the veteran Sierra College baseball coach is back in the grind in the pressure cooker known as the Big 8 Conference.
If this is indeed a baseball region at all levels, it plays out beautifully in perhaps the best community college conference in the state. The Big 8 has rivalries and talent. It includes Cosumnes River, Sacramento City and American River colleges. The margin of error is small, the intensity immense. Victories are cherished, and losses cause coaches to fret. The lineup cards feature scores of Division I prospects being followed by major-league scouts. Survive this conference, and you have a good shot of winning NorCal Regional tournaments and reaching the California State Community College final four. Or, better yet, winning the whole thing, which Sierra did in 2008 and CRC did in 2012. Sac City last played for the title in 2006.
But joy? There’s no joy in Big 8 baseball. You see more anxiety in the faces of the coaches, more strain in their voices. Willson took last season off to recharge his batteries and couldn’t wait to return. Now he questions his sanity.
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Don’t think for a moment coaches at this level don’t push themselves into the red as much as the D-I mentors do.
“I hate it,” Willson said with a hearty laugh Monday afternoon while sizing up the league race. “No, I don’t hate it, but we’ve taught ourselves to be miserable because the competition is so great, and it’s agonizing when you lose. Our league is the best around. It’s like 21 playoff games. We’re like the SEC in football and baseball here. It can be the second inning of the second league game of the year that could cost you a playoff berth, or just when you think you’re done, you’re right back in the title race after two games.
“So this great game destroys our minds for three months of the year, but ... ”
But they live for this. So do the players.
Baseball at this level continues to thrive in the region, with the competition just as fierce in recruiting. It wasn’t always this way. Sac City dominated the region, and pretty much all of Northern California, in the 1980s and ’90s and into the 2000s. Balance became the norm when the Big 8 was formed last decade. CRC and Sierra, once afterthoughts to Sac City, closed the gap, and then some. The Big 8 has had a team in the state finals six times since 2005 with three different champions.
Entering the final, frantic week of Big 8 play, the championship race remains cluttered at the top. San Joaquin Delta (25-8) leads at 12-6. CRC (23-10), Sierra (20-13) and Santa Rosa (23-9) are tied for second at 11-7. Sac City (22-10) is a game behind at 10-8. Modesto (21-11) and Diablo Valley (19-14) are jockeying for home playoff berths with 7-11 marks. All seven of these teams will make the postseason, which starts April 29.
Only ARC (10-22) is out at 3-15, but coach Doug Jumelet is bent on having a final say. The Beavers beat Sierra 2-1 last week, and their two one-run wins over Modesto earlier this month all but cost the Pirates a shot at the title. CRC faces Delta three times this week after sweeping Sac City last week 5-4, 5-3 and 6-2. Sierra swept CRC in three great games last month and closes with Santa Rosa. Sac City, which went 2-1 against Sierra, finishes with Modesto.
“You have to be ready,” CRC coach Tony Bloomfield said, “because anything can happen.”
That was true in 2012 with CRC. The Hawks had no practices or games on campus because of a facility upgrade but still won the Big 8 title en route to the state championship.
If CRC and Sierra go 2-1 this week, the programs will tie for the title. Willson and Bloomfield have become good friends, partly because they share each other’s misery in defeat and delight in victory.
Willson may have the Big 8 MVP in slugger Dalton Blaser of Roseville High School. Sac City coach Derek Sullivan has a standout in center fielder Jared James from McClatchy. He’s the son of retired major leaguer Dion James, also from McClatchy. CRC has one of the Big 8’s most versatile players in Josh Pigg, a power pitcher from nearby Franklin who also plays in the outfield.
“A lot of talent out there,” Willson said. “Winning the league title is nice, but we’re beyond that. Several of us are. Now it’s ‘Play to win the ring.’ That’s our motto. Then we start to have some fun.”