APACHE JUNCTION — Results won’t happen overnight, but a new era of baseball is being ushered in at Apache Junction, and it’s being led by Jason Hutchens.
Last year’s team was 2-7 when the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Prospectors aren’t thinking about giant leaps forward this season. Hutchens has smaller goals in mind at first as he tries to build the program back to being a consistent winner.
Apache Junction won the Division IV state championship in 2016, so it hasn’t been long since the Prospectors were on top. But it’s going to take some time to return to that level of baseball.
The man in charge of getting the program back to its winning ways is Hutchens, in his first year coaching his alma mater.
“I actually grew up here; I played on this field when I was in high school,” Hutchens said after Apache Junction beat Phoenix Cortez 20-0 on Friday. “We really didn’t get started practicing until February (due to COVID), and it was hard to tell what we had and how we were doing ... we didn’t get a lot of kids out for tryouts, so we ended up with just a varsity team.”
Without a JV squad, the varsity has two freshmen and eight sophomores. The Prospectors also have three juniors and six seniors.
Hutchens and assistant coach Michael Hebting came over from Gilbert Campo Verde, a perennial playoff team up until the last playoffs were held in 2019.
“We’re young, and I think expectations have changed a little bit,” Hutchens said. “We’re just trying to instill some confidence in them. We need to get them to the point where they believe in themselves as much as we believe in them because there’s some good baseball players out here, but I think over the last (few) years, they haven’t played with a lot of confidence.”
Players to watch this season include senior catcher Nate O’Brien, whose athleticism and versatility allows him to impact the game in several ways. Hutchens said O’Brien is also the team’s best outfielder and started the season in center field before it was evident the team needed help behind the plate.
O’Brien leads the team with a 1.480 OPS and is also tied for the team lead in stolen bases with four. He and senior Jordan Farrow are each hitting .500.
Sophomore Garrett Garcia was moved to center when O’Brien took over behind the plate, and Hutchens said he’s done a good job defensively. O’Brien will likely be used at both positions, depending on where he is most needed on a given day.
The starting pitchers include seniors Adrian Romo and Benjamin Bailon, with Hutchens saying Romo is likely the ace of the staff.
After a couple of games against a severely overmatched Cortez team — Apache Junction won the rematch 28-0 on Tuesday — the Prospectors have a much tougher portion of the schedule coming soon.
Apache Junction will play Vista Grande and Poston Butte twice each between April 9 and April 20. The Vista Grande games are April 9 (away) and April 13 (home), while the Poston Butte games are scheduled for April 16 (home) and April 20 (away).
The Prospectors will know much more about where their team stands after those games. But the expectations in Apache Junction will be tempered based on the roster construction.
“Varsity experience is very limited with these guys,” Hutchens said. “There wasn’t a lot of younger kids on the team last year.”