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Community Colleges of Spokane baseball continues evolution into juco power despite pandemic, region-only schedule

Former Freeman High standout pitcher McKabe Cottrell is one of 10 players from the Community Colleges of Spokane to sign with a Division I school under fourth-year coach Bryan Winston.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Former Freeman High standout pitcher McKabe Cottrell is one of 10 players from the Community Colleges of Spokane to sign with a Division I school under fourth-year coach Bryan Winston. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Community Colleges of Spokane recently checked in at No. 16 in a national junior college baseball poll, a distinction the Sasquatch want to prove they deserve.

They can’t.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced CCS to play solely a league schedule this spring, but that’s not why it hasn’t faced the nation’s best or vied for a spot in the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction Colorado, which begins this weekend.

While the best teams from baseball-rich states like Texas, Florida and Arizona and hundreds of others from around the country aim for a national crown ever year, members of the Northwest Athletic Conference reach the pinnacle of their year at the regional NWAC Tournament, which annually marks the end of the 28-team, budget-strapped league’s season.

NWAC teams don’t play beyond the borders of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, saving their respective institutions big money on travel costs full-scholarship NCAA Division I factories like top-ranked Wabash College (Illinois), No. 2 Walters State (Tennessee), or even regionally, the College of Southern Idaho, are allotted at the NJCAA level.

A nationally ranked program without a national schedule: the paradox of a burgeoning CCS program that’s posted a 106-43 record the past four years under fourth-year coach Bryan Winston.

“We don’t have the ability to (play for a chance to reach the NJCAA World Series), so to still to be recognized in the Top 25 is great,” Winston said. “Those are some big-time teams in that poll.”

The Top 25 recognition by popular college baseball site PerfectGame.com was a consolation of sorts following a 29-7 season that ended unceremoniously last weekend after a home win against Treasure Valley.

“I think that is something we all wanted, to still be playing,” said CCS pitcher and Ferris graduate Cameron Liss. “But I’ll take a national ranking.”

Only three teams in the Perfect Game’s recent poll aren’t from the NJCAA ranks, including Ohlone and Orange Coast, members of the robust California Community College Athletic Association which ends its season with a state tournament without national berths, similar to the NWAC.

The partial-scholarship NWAC may not have the resources, facilities, accommodating weather and vast recruiting pool as many NJCAA institutions, but programs like CCS are still getting the most out of their talent.

In Winston’s four years, CCS and its Inland Northwest-heavy roster has sent 10 players to Division I schools and even more to winning NAIA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division II programs.

Short-time Boise State commit Reed Harrington was drafted in 2019 out of CCS and is currently in the Boston Red Sox farm system.

Liss and teammate McKabe Cottrell, a Freeman graduate, signed with Washington State this spring.

Liss, a southpaw who yielded no scholarship offers out of Ferris, came to CCS at 150 pounds, but has since bulked up to 200 and markedly improved his pitches, he said.

He went 6-2 as a freshman while striking out 66 batters in 56 innings and posted a 2.08 ERA and offers from Division I schools began rolling in.

Cottrell (81), Liss (78) and Gonzaga Prep graduate Ryun Cross (67) recently finished 1-2-3 in all of the NWAC in strikeouts to lead a deep and talented CCS pitching staff.

“Watching what Winston and our coaches have done to this program has been incredible,” Liss said. “They bring in good guys and good people, too. It’s a program that has definitely flipped the script.”

There was a 15-year cap between NWAC East Region titles for CCS, spanning from 2004 – when Winston played for the Sasquatch – to 2019, his second season.

The Sasquatch finished third at the NWAC Tournament in 2018 and 2019 and took a No. 1 preseason ranking into 2020, where it got off to a 9-3 start before the coronavirus canceled the season.

CCS played an East Region schedule this spring but was robbed of another opportunity to win an NWAC Tournament title when the league declined postseason play due to pandemic concerns.

But the season was still a success, Winston said, considering the circumstances.

“We finished with the best record in the East Region, which was our goal,” Winston said

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