Sheldon Neuse is a potential U.S. national baseball team invitee who leads Oklahoma University in doubles, triples, home runs and RBI.
Andrew Benintendi is the everyday center fielder at Arkansas, where he has scored a team-high 44 runs and driven in 26 more.
Mississippi State’s Reid Humphreys is the brother of Washington Nationals outfielder Tyler Moore, and Alec Hansen is a 6-foot-7 right-handed reliever whose fastball touched triple digits in his freshman season at Oklahoma.
No wonder San Luis Obispo Blues head coach Chal Fanning looks at this year’s roster of incoming summer collegiate players and sounds like a broken record.
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“It seems like I’ve been saying this the past couple years,” the 12-year skipper said, “but this might be the most talented, on paper, that we’ve ever been.”
Fanning is an assistant at Cuesta College and a former Cal Poly player and coach who also spent six years as recruiting coordinator at Missouri. Fanning said his midwest connections and recruiting acumen help him reel in players from high-profile programs, including Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
“The talent level has really gone through the roof,” Fanning said of the California Collegiate League, in which the Blues finished fourth last year. “I’m not going to say it’s at the same level with Cape Cod … but we’ve improved to the point where Major League Baseball and national publications such as Baseball America and Perfect Game recognize it.”
Several Blues have gone on to play in the majors, most recently Los Angeles Angels first baseman C.J. Cron, a Fullerton native who played in San Luis Obispo in 2009 and was drafted by the Angels in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft. Cron has a pair of homers and 13 hits in 15 games this season in the big leagues.
Fanning sees that potential in this year’s squad when looking at players such as Neuse, an infielder who has started all 55 games for the Sooners this season as a freshman, and is hitting .290 with 40 RBI and seven home runs. The 6-foot shortstop from Fort Worth, Texas, was a 2013 Rawlings Second Team All-American and ranked as the third-best middle infielder of the class of 2013 by ESPN.
“He’s got a real good shot of being a Team USA invitee,” Fanning said of Neuse, who hit a walk-off, two-run single to beat Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. “He was primarily at third at Oklahoma, but I know they are looking for him to compete for a middle-infield spot in the future.”
Other players to watch include Alabama-Birmingham’s Chase Davis and Mitch Williams. Davis, an outfielder, has a team-high 11 doubles this year to go with 38 runs and 27 RBI. Williams, a catcher, is hitting .302 and has driven in 20 runs.
Jacob Hoyle has 14 home runs, 53 RBI and a .575 slugging percentage for a 37-17 Western Carolina team hoping to be selected Monday for an NCAA regional.
Pitchers include Arkansas’ Dominic Taccolini (2-0, 4.12 ERA, .198 opponent batting average), Texas A&M’s Andrew Vinson (3-2, 2.50 ERA, .192 opponent batting average) and Tucker Forbes — a 6-foot-9 right-hander who is at UCLA.
Fanning was hoping to have Texas Tech’s Dylan Dusek, who started 12 games and posted a 6-0 record with a 2.35 ERA, but he said the Red Raiders shut him down due to an inning count.
In his stead, the Red Raiders sent freshman left-hander Ty Damron, who was drafted in the 13th round of the 2013 MLB First-Year Players Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Krum High in Krum, Texas.
“He didn’t quite fall into their rotation this year,” Fanning said of Damron, who struck out 10 in 10 1⁄3 innings. “I’m looking forward to see if he can be one of our starters.”
Three local high school products will return to San Luis Obispo on the Blues’ full-time roster, including San Luis Obispo natives Connor O’Hare and RJ Hassey. Hassey is the everyday catcher at Cuesta, and O’Hare appeared in six games this season for Santa Barbara City College. Kyle Brown was last year’s Tribune County Player of the Year, and the Arroyo Grande graduate struck out 20 batters in 17 2⁄3 innings in his first season at the College of Southern Nevada.
The Blues open their season tonight with a three-game home series against the San Francisco Seals as part of a 12-game homestand to kick off CCL play. Finishing the NCAA season precludes the majority of the roster from playing on opening weekend, so Fanning will lean on a makeshift cast of temporary players to round out the lineup.
The coach said about six full-time Blues will dress alongside fill-ins such as local high school players Robbie Silva and Garrett Ball from Arroyo Grande.
“You just kind of piece it together these first few games and do what you can to survive,” said Fanning, whose team went 40-21 last year, including a 2-2 stint at the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kan. “I just want to make sure we have enough guys that I don’t have to go out and fill a spot.”
With Cal Poly’s baseball team firmly in the national spotlight and primed for a College World Series run, Fanning knows his Blues might play second fiddle for the first few weeks of the season.
He’s more than willing to let his alma mater take center stage while the Blues roster starts to take its shape.
“I was talking with (Blues general manager Adam Stowe), and we’ll gladly take a back seat however long we need to,” Fanning said. “It’s a great thing for our community, and I’m excited for coach (Larry) Lee.
“It’s going to be quite the baseball town, and it should be a fun summer for people who want a baseball fix.”