By Gary Fauber Assistant Sports Editor
As the West Virginia Miners have toured through five seasons, existing relationships have been bolstered and new ones have been forged.
Case in point: Dallas Baptist University. Since the organization began in 2010, manager Tim Epling has developed a rapport with Patriots head coach Dan Heefner and assistant Wes Johnson.
The school has provided the Miners with big-time players. Right-handed pitcher Jake Johansen was a second-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals in 2013. Pitchers Brandon Koch and Trevor Conn and center fielder David Martinelli are key components to this year’s team that could be announced as a NCAA regional host on Monday.
Cal Hernandez’s situation is a little different, but he would certainly enjoy being one of the next Dallas Baptist products to etch his name favorably into Miners lore.
The 5-foot-9 infielder from Lewisville, Texas, redshirted as a freshman this spring. But being part of one of this year’s top Division I programs has been every bit a privilege as it would be had he been on the field.
“Having a lot of seniors helps,” Hernandez said after practice Saturday evening. “All of them make sure that the freshmen and sophomores are involved with everything we do, whether it’s Bible study or just going out to eat. They make sure they invite the younger guys. They just want everyone to be part of the family. That’s why I think we’re so good and we’ve just bonded together.”
Hernandez, who has a pet cat named Pablo Sandoval, came to DBU with big credentials. He hit .380 as a senior at Coppell High School in the baseball-rich state of Texas. He was all-district and second-team all-state.
Getting the chance to play college baseball at the highest level was what Hernandez always envisioned.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to play Division I baseball since I was 2 years old. Just having a team like that, where there’s a senior in front of you that teaches you everything if you don’t know anything, it’s just great. Having teammates that are there to support you, whether you are playing or not.”
“Coach Heefner and Coach Johnson have been good to us,” Epling said. “We’ve taken care of their players, and any time you’ve got a top 10 (caliber) program like that and they allow you to have four of their guys … We’ve been good friends for quite some time, but it still comes down to making sure their guys are treated right and put in a good environment where they can get better.”
The Patriots’ were surprisingly eliminated from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last week, but will still get a regional invite. They were No. 1 in the nation in RPI rankings for much of the season — they slipped slightly, to No. 3, in the latest rankings — and have been ranked as high as No. 9 in most Top 25 rankings.
Hernandez admits to being a little disappointed to not be with his teammates in the Lone Star State with a possible shot at the College World Series in the offing. But he’s ready to play — redshirting this spring means he has not played competitively in a year.
“Not being there, it’s a little sad,” he said. “I wish I could be there with the team and be able to experience everything. But this is good for me. Being out here and learning everything is great. You can’t be too much involved. You’re going to have to be able to play sooner than later. I think it was best for a lot of us to come out here and play.”
Hernandez was joined by fellow DBU redshirt Hunter Vansau, who is now questionable after suffering an ankle injury Saturday afternoon. After the Patriots’ run is over, they will be joined by pitcher Gavin Fritz.
A nice welcome in southern West Virginia has helped.
“It’s great. The people are nice, the team’s awesome,” Hernandez said. “It’s a very classy place and I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far.”
Among Hernandez’s Dallas Baptist teammates are former Miners such as Koch, the Patriots’ closer who has 14 saves and a 1.41 earned run average. Opponents are hitting a paltry .164 against Koch.
Then there’s Martinelli, a Prospect League all-star last year who is second on the team with nine home runs and has 35 runs batted in. Conn, who pitched for West Virginia last season, has a 2-1 record and 1.84 ERA.
“All those guys, we’re going to playing for money,” Epling said. “I have been very blessed to have those type schools contribute to what we have.”
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