By Brian Brownfield-
The shift from the California Pacific Conference to the Golden State Athletic Conference was supposed to result in a period of struggles for the Menlo College athletic programs. Moving to a conference with more competition means recruiting efforts must be ramped up, a process that normally takes a few years. Meanwhile, getting acclimated to facing stiff competition on a regular basis does not allow for the opportunity to create a schedule with “easy” games. All things considered, the shift in conferences created an interesting 2016 season outlook for both Menlo Baseball and Softball. Baseball was coming off a 33-win season in 2015 that featured one of the most potent offenses in the NAIA, but lost a lot of talent to graduation. Softball was looking to get back on the map after a dismal 2015 campaign that featured only 11 wins. The conference switch was not expected to be benevolent to Menlo.
The uncertainty caused from 2015 is exactly why 2016 has been such an exciting season for players and fans alike of Menlo Baseball and Softball. With just one month remaining in their current seasons, both teams have not only met expectations, but exceeded them. Each team has seen significant national attention for the first time in the history of their respective programs. Menlo Baseball cracked the NAIA Coaches Poll Top-25 rankings for the first time ever, reaching the 25th spot in the nation on March 15. One week later, Menlo Softball received votes in the NAIA Coaches Poll for the first time. How have both teams been able to defy the odds and put together some of their best seasons in recent years? Let’s look at each team individually and identify what created a ton of energy on the roster and among the Menlo community.
As of April 4, Menlo Baseball is 26-14 overall and 9-9 in Golden State Athletic Conference play. The start is one of the best in the history of the baseball program, and even better is their record at home. Menlo is 18-3 playing in the friendly confines of Cartan Field, showing how good the Oaks are at performing in front of their home fans. Up and down the stat sheet, Menlo is among the national leaders in several categories. The Oaks have hit the most home runs in the nation with 61, while posting an impressive 3.54 team earned run average. One of the big weaknesses of the team a season ago was the defense, which committed 95 errors in just 55 games. This season, Menlo cleaned up their play defensively and ranks sixth in the nation with a 0.970 fielding percentage. In other words, that is just 43 errors in 40 games which is about one less error per game than last season. A simple glance at the numbers shows it is no surprise this Menlo squad was ranked for the first time.
When asked about the reason for the improvement this season, Menlo Head Coach Jake McKinley explains it very straight forwardly. “It’s all about the people. We have the right personnel from a baseball and personality standpoint,” McKinley notes. “This team loves to win and they hate to lose. That is shown in their day-to-day work ethic. It’s the hardest working group we have had here in my three years at Menlo.”
In a team sport like baseball it can be hard to find a few players who stand out from the rest. Offensively, Lucas Erceg and Garrett Gemgnani are two of the best players on this team. They are becoming one of the most menacing duos in the country. Erceg is second in the nation with 14 home runs, just one behind his teammate Gemgnani who has 15. Erceg has driven in 36 runs, fourth best in the GSAC, and hits .323 overall. A transfer from the University of California, Erceg plays third base and is the closer on the team. He is considered by many scouts to be a high-round draft pick in the First-Year Player Draft for Major League Baseball. Not to be outdone, Gemgnani has caught fire as well. Menlo’s first baseman leads the conference with 46 runs batted in and has walked more times (36) than he has struck out (32). Since he is hitting .342 to go along with it, good luck finding a way to avoid his presence in the lineup.
Ashkhon Kuhaulua is the ace of the Menlo pitching staff. The numbers he puts up as a junior are videogame-like. His 4-4 record might not turn heads, but his 1.58 earned run average (ERA) in 68.1 innings pitched certainly will. Using a fastball that tops out in the mid-90s, Kuhaulua has recorded 95 strikeouts, which is one behind the best total in the country. He does more than just strike batters out though, his .183 opponents batting average is best in the conference. When added all up, Kuhaulua’s occupation at the top of the pitching staff benefits everyone.
When asked about these three, Coach McKinley noted his pleasure in being able to coach such great talent and unselfish individuals. “Those guys make the players around them better whether they realize it or not,” explains the Menlo Head Coach. “They play with a quiet intensity and are committed to helping the team win. They are selfless and exemplify servant leadership on the field.”
For a team as deep and dangerous as this one, it could be easy for the players to take a conceited approach to each game. However, McKinley told me that is not found with this Oaks squad. “We talk about neutrality and taking care of the present a lot,” he explains. “We can’t control what happens in May, all we can do is compete on the next pitch with our best effort. In addition, we discuss playing the game with great attitudes each and every day.” Only the best coaches are able to express this to a team in a way they can understand it. Coach McKinley does this with his group of players and, as a result, they give it their all for him.
“The thing about Coach McKinley is that he is a players’ coach,” says junior Nick Quejado, who has seen considerable time playing the outfield this season. “He not only cares about our play, but emphasizes caring about each individual off the field. It is more of an autonomous rule as opposed to one person calling the shots.” Quick to point out it is more than just McKinley, Quejado also made reference to the entire coaching staff being top notch. “It absolutely is an extension of every coach on our team. They allow each of us to play freely and be ourselves, which makes this coaching staff one of the best in the nation.” Lightheartedly, Quejado sums up the atmosphere by saying, “It’s lit.”
“Shock the World”
Measuring the expectations of Menlo’s Softball team for 2016 was a tough task before the season began. After a disappointing 2015 season, this year’s Oaks Softball bunch was determined to show the year before was merely a fluke. They sure were right. Led by a young and hungry core group of players with a few senior leaders anchoring the team, Menlo is 20-16 as of April 4, and 7-6 in Golden State Athletic Conference games. Furthermore, the opponents they have taken down this season are notable. Menlo won all three contests against Oregon Tech, at the time the 3rd ranked team in the nation. They have a victory over Corban, the 17th ranked team in the nation, and Biola, the 20th ranked team in the nation. Menlo also swept a doubleheader against Indiana Wesleyan, the 24th ranked team in the nation, and split a doubleheader against Arizona Christian, ranked 25th. Add it all up, and these victories led to Menlo receiving votes in the national polls for the first time in program history.
This Menlo Softball team is unlike any Menlo Softball team before. The all-around efforts on both sides of the ball have greatly improved. They are hitting .312 as a team, the highest total for a Menlo Softball team. Their defense has improved from a season ago, with several defensive players capable of making highlight-reel plays on the field. However, the biggest improvement has been the pitching staff. In 2015, the Oaks team earned run average was 7.65; in 2016, the Oaks team earned run average is 3.77. Giving up four runs less per game is a massive improvement that keeps the team in ballgames and allows them to compete against even the best teams.
Head Coach Matt Lisle is in his first season with Menlo and he inherited a team that was extremely young. While the players gained experience in 2015, it was uncertain how it would apply to this year. That is where Lisle took his coaching expertise and helped instill one thing in his players, trust. “Since Day 1, we’ve tried to implement a culture of trust: players trusting each other and trusting the coaches,” Lisle explains. “We’ve also made a covenant with each other to be all-in for the common goal of winning a conference championship and being committed to doing what it takes to do that.” It is clear to see they are on the right track.
This culture of trust has helped Menlo live up to their self-given team slogan of “Shock the World.” It has also seen the rise of several players who have the ability to carry the team. Leading the charge is senior centerfielder Mary Hall who was named to the California Pacific All-Conference team in her first three seasons. Hall is not slowing down in 2016. She has the eighth-best batting average in the GSAC at .372 and leads the team with 9 stolen bases. Her stellar defense in centerfield makes the pitching staff better by limiting opportunities and taking away base hits. Hall is usually followed in the lineup by sophomore Alaina Morgan, who is developing into one of the most dangerous power hitters in the conference. Morgan has blasted 8 home runs, best in the GSAC, and has walked more times (24) than she has struck out (16). Megan Wright has also found a home in the Menlo lineup, catching nearly every game this season. A junior transfer from San Diego Mesa Community College, Wright is hitting .353 with 3 homeruns and 16 RBIs. Let’s not forget her .505 on-base percentage (percentage of the time she gets on base), which is the best on the team. Her pitch calling and blocking is fantastic behind the plate, earning her the reputation as one of the best all-around catchers in the conference.
Menlo’s pitching staff has also seen its fair share standouts, with each of its three pitchers having notable success in 2016. Jessie Salsbury leads the charge with 12 wins, good for third-best in the conference. She also has a 3.01 earned run average and is enjoying a fabulous first season with the Oaks since transferring from Butte College. In 15 starts, Salsbury has gone the distance in 11, saving the backend of the rotation for doubleheaders. Her presence cannot be understated and it has only made Kelly Hager and Jordan Kennedy better. Hager is a senior who is experiencing the best statistical season of her career. She recently earned her first two wins of the season, and her 4.02 earned run average in 12 games is a career-best. She is also posting personal bests in opponents batting average and walks per seven innings. Kennedy is a sophomore who has also had outstanding moments for the Oaks this season. She is 4-6 with a 5.06 earned run average, but every statistic I can mention is better than it was a season ago, including 5 complete games and Menlo’s only shutout in 2016. This pitching staff is the real reason Menlo is competing and winning in 2016.
The games Menlo performed their best at have been the games against their toughest opponents, a reason why they have won seven games against ranked teams. It may be strange to an outsider that a team can play its best against the best teams, but Coach Lisle knows that’s how his team operates. “This team can hang with anyone because they have the confidence to do so. We’ve seen over ten of the top-20 teams and came to the realization that pound for pound, we’re just as good. Beating some great teams early made that realization come fast. “
Part of this new found energy and confidence comes from the seniors on this team: Hall, Hager, Alyssa Seva’aetasi, Maddie Napier, and Lindsey Rieger. Their ability to help the younger players learn and grow together is seen by everyone, especially Coach Lisle. “The seniors have done an incredible job of leadership this year,” Lisle illustrates. “They’ve made it their mission to leave a legacy behind that future teams and classes will want to follow. They’re committed to making sure that when they leave the field on their last game, they’ll have zero regrets. I’m very proud of the leadership they’ve shown this year.” In other words, the seniors want to make sure future Menlo Softball teams will continue to “shock the world” for years to come.
The Bottom Line
Both teams strive to finish the season in style, but the road to the playoffs is filled with conference foes. Menlo Baseball has 13 games remaining on the schedule, with 12 of them against GSAC opponents. Menlo Softball faces a similar challenge, with 15 games left to play and 11 of those are conference matchups. With so many games still to come in conference play, both teams have the ability to continue their climb in the GSAC standings as they push for the playoffs. As they make that push for the playoffs, national exposure will continue to rise. In the final month of the season, it will be interesting to see if either Oaks team can get in the national rankings and finish the season there. What’s the significance? If a team fails to win their conference playoff tournament at the end of the season, but they are ranked when the year ends, they get an automatic bid into the national playoff tournament. Menlo Baseball has reached that tournament just once in 2012 and Menlo Softball has never qualified.
Regardless of where either team finishes, it will be a successful season for both. The drastic improvements across the board for both teams not only put these spring sports on the map, but also direct the spotlight to shine on Menlo College. The Oaks cannot be taken lightly in any sport and if you make the trip to Cartan or Wunderlich Fields, you better be ready to take on hungry and determined Menlo teams.