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By JACK HARRIS
MESA – When New Mexico State baseball coach Brian Green was hired by his alma mater in 2015, he made a decision: The Aggies were going to recruit the state of Arizona.
Arizona, one of the better baseball-producing states in the western half of the country, was being under-recruited, especially when it came to “second-tier” prospects. While traditional baseball powers Arizona and Arizona State plucked the state’s top talent, the rest of the area’s college-caliber recruits were often passed over in favor of players from the fertile recruiting grounds of Southern California.
The only other local options for college-bound Arizonans were Grand Canyon University (the only other Division I program in the state) or a community college.
In the Copper State, Green saw a golden opportunity.
He and his staff went to work building a pipeline. They established relationships with Arizona coaches. They spent almost entire offseasons in the Phoenix area, going from tournament to tournament recruiting players. They became frequent faces on junior college campuses.
“You’re going to go where the good players are,” said Green, whose Aggies dropped their first game of the NCAA Tournament, falling to Texas Tech, 9-2, Friday in the Lubbock Regional. “It’s a natural state for us.”
In Year Four of his tenure, it has paid off.
NMSU won the WAC tournament, fittingly, on Arizona soil, knocking off Sacramento State 4-3 in the title game at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa to clinch the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012. Of the 40 players on the team, 14 are products of either an Arizona high school or junior college.
“This is why you do it,” Green said amid last week’s postgame celebration, overcome with emotion and still soaked from a Gatorade shower. “I’m going to be crying a lot the next couple days.”
He can blame many of his Arizona-bred players for the tears. They proved to be some of NMSU’s most important contributors.
Junior pitcher Kyle Bradish (a Goodyear-native and Millennium High School product) was the Aggies ace in the WAC tournament, winning both his starts while allowing just one unearned run in 13 innings of work. Junior outfielder Logan Ehnes (North Canyon High School) hit the game-deciding home run in the seventh inning of the title game. Junior pitcher Brock Whittlesey (Gilbert Highland High School) picked up the championship-clinching save despite throwing 99 pitches the day before.
“Half the team is basically from here,” Whittlesey said postgame. “(We had) the support of the fans. It brings a whole new energy to the team.”
Indeed, there was a strong – and vocal – contingent of NMSU faithful in attendance all week, comprised mostly of families of local players. Green sought out and embraced almost each of them on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a proud day,” he said. “All those fans showing up, pretty awesome.”
This year’s WAC tournament title was the fulfillment of NMSU’s recruiting plan.
It made perfect sense for NMSU to go after players from its neighboring state to the west. While New Mexico and west Texas are closer to the school’s Las Cruces campus, neither are the baseball hotbed Arizona has become (only California and Washington have produced more MLB players the last three years of the 11 states west of Texas, according to data collected from Baseball Almanac).
And when the Aggies began recruiting players from the area, they found little competition from other schools.
GCU is the only program in the country with more players from either an Arizona high school or junior college. Not even UA or ASU have NMSU’s quantity of Arizona talent. There are only three other out-of-state schools in the region with more than four Arizona high school products: (UNLV has seven, Pacific has six, BYU has five).
“We’ve really got a brand and we’re able to sell that,” NMSU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Davis said. “Hopefully (other programs) stay away because we take advantage of it.”
Prep coaches around the state have wondered why more college programs, especially mid-major schools outside of Southern California, don’t follow NMSU’s Arizona-centric model.
“To me it’s genius because the kids want to play and it’s not very far away,” Kelly Johnson, who coaches the baseball program at Tucson-area Cienega High School, said of NMSU’s recruiting plan. “(Arizona) is a hotbed for baseball and a lot of schools aren’t pushing it as hard as they should.”
Johnson should know. He coached Nick Gonzales last year, one of the many Arizona players who had to look beyond state borders when looking for a place to play college baseball. Gonzales was leaning toward attending the Naval Academy, where his brother played football, when NMSU came knocking.
“I was a small kid from Tucson. I didn’t have much (recruiting attention),” Gonzales said last week. “But (NMSU) really liked me and showed a lot of interest.”
The Aggies were persistent with Gonzales. Assistant coach Jordan Becker even went to see Gonzales’ club team play on a practice field in the Hohokam Stadium complex before his senior year. He called his decision to play for the Aggies “a no-brainer.”
In his freshman year this season, Gonzales has flourished. He leads NMSU with a .349 batting average, has hit nine home runs and was this week named WAC Freshman of the Year.
“He’s in the best spot for him,” Gonzales’ mother, Jill, said on Wednesday during NMSU’s tournament-opener.
Added his dad (and little league coach), Mike: “I think there is definitely a California bias (by some other schools). If you look around, there’s a lot of Tucson kids and Arizona kids who do well and they don’t really get a lot of looks.”
NMSU’s second-leading hitter this season, Caleb Henderson, isn’t an Arizona native (he was born in Colorado) but was recruited to the school after a successful two-year career at Central Arizona Community College in Coolidge.
“They’re really active getting out and seeing our guys early,” Central Arizona coach Anthony Gilich said. “That’s probably why they get more guys. You see them out, very active in recruiting junior college. They come out to a lot of games and practices and are very aware of who’s doing well and in touch with all the teams in our conference.
“They are taking some guys that potentially could go to a bigger program.”
It hasn’t been easy. Joel Mangrum was NMSU’s first recruiting coordinator under Green and helped build many of the early relationships with Arizona high school and junior college coaches. Though Mangrum left the program after last season, Davis has picked up where he left off.
“We set up shop here, for the most part, in the summer,” Davis said, estimating that he and other coaches spend about 100 nights in the Phoenix area during the offseason. “We’ve been able to get some really good kids out of here.”
Kids who helped NMSU win a conference title this week and left their head coach choked up.
“When we took this program over a few years ago, there was a lot of things we were told we couldn’t do,” Green said Sunday, flashing a wide tooth smile in the late afternoon Arizona sun. “We never listened to that. We had a different vision in mind.”
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