Junior colleges aren't socially accepted among some groups, but they benefit bright-eyed baseball players who aren't quite ready to take the next step. A junior college is a place for players to become something great. Although, the path isn't always understood from the outside. There are a lot of myths surrounding the junior college route.
"I think over the years, we've broken a lot of those myths. There's so many more well documented instances of the rewards from a junior college and using them as a stepping stone for something greater," Tom Arrington, head coach of San Jacinto College, said.
Over the past 10 years, the junior college route, or the "JUCO route," has become increasingly popular for baseball players who aspire to play at the next level. In the Mid-American Conference alone, over 60 active baseball players played at a junior college before their current institution. Ohio has 10 on its 2023 roster.
Hundreds of MLB players walked the halls of a junior college before they graced the dugouts of professional stadiums. Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, fan-favorite Bryce Harper and even Albert Pujols all played for junior colleges at some point.
There are over 300 junior colleges to choose from in the U.S. for baseball over three divisions, according to the NJCAA. Junior college baseball is not popular in certain regions, though. Of those 300, there are 10 junior colleges in Ohio that field a baseball team.
Abbie Kinney | For The Post
"I think depending on where you live in different parts of the country, I think that people look at junior college baseball in a lot of different ways," Ohio coach Craig Moore said. "In Texas, a lot of kids go to the junior college route because they feel that maybe they were overlooked as they want to go to a two-year school and then maybe get recruited by a Division I school. Now, I know as you get more northeast with some junior colleges, kids aren't necessarily going there with the idea of getting recruited by a Division I."
The recruiting process is similar across the board for four-year institutions and junior colleges. Athletes attend showcases and post their accomplishments online in hopes of catching a college coach's eye.
One of the leading sources for junior college recruiting is JucoRoute, a showcase and social-media-based company that helps educate athletes on junior college baseball while connecting them to different schools across the U.S.
Bob Hlavac started JucoRoute (@JucoRoute) as a side hustle, but the platform has quickly taken off. JucoRoute has hosted recruiting showcases across nine different states with top junior colleges in attendance.
The showcases begin with a pro-style event, where athletes' information is recorded for coaches to access during and after the showcase, along with a digital resume that allows the athletes to post videos to build a recruiting profile. From there, the showcase breaks into traditional recruiting and scouting activities, such as individual defense evaluations and batting practice.
Spring and summer showcases are a great way for uncommitted high school athletes to get in front of coaches, especially if they want to go through the junior college route.
"Typically, junior colleges really start their process a little bit later than the four year schools because they don't want to invest a ton of time and then have a kid decide to go to a four year school," Hlavac said.
Most athletes who attend a junior college will commit to a school sometime between March and when school starts in the fall. It is not as intense of a recruiting process as NCAA Division I, but it is still just as important.
In recent years, the number of junior college baseball players has spiked because more athletes are going through the recruiting process with junior college on their minds.
Ohio head coach Craig Moore has recruited several junior college student-athletes for his team. He's seen a rise in the number of athletes coming from junior colleges, partially due to the extra year of eligibility that was granted to athletes affected by COVID-19, which has jammed roster spots.
Moore's first job as a head coach was at Western Texas College, a junior college located in Snyder, Texas. Western Texas is a member of Region 5, one of the largest sectors of NJCAA Division I.
Abbie Kinney | For The Post
Moore has also found that part of the reason more athletes have turned to but also due to the shortened MLB Draft. The MLB Draft shrunk from 40 rounds to 20 rounds, which caused more athletes to hang around at their respective schools to try to raise their stock.
In turn, that has forced underclassmen who aren't ready for the big time to search for a place to develop elsewhere because the roles they were set to slide into are still filled. However, that is what junior colleges are there for: growth.
Arrington has been the head coach at San Jacinto for over 20 seasons, where he has taken 11 trips to the NJCAA JUCO World Series. A member of the NJCAA baseball hall of fame, Arrington began his playing career at the College of Marin, a junior college located in Kentfield, California.
Arrington chose the junior college route despite having offers from California and UCLA because it is what made the most sense for him out of high school.
"There are many reasons and I think they're well-documented for why student-athletes choose to go junior college as opposed to a four-year institution," Arrington said. "I think mainly mine was based on there was a coach that was moving in there. There were my friends that were there and I wanted to remain connected to them."
There are many reasons to attend a junior college to play a sport. Some, like Arrington, also choose to go because they want to stay closer to home for a little while. Others do because they're not ready for an academic jump, or the cost of a four-year institution is troublesome. However, the main reason is to develop as a player and a person.
Junior college rosters are composed mostly of first and second-year students. With the COVID-19 eligibility bump, a few third-year members are on junior college teams, but that is rare otherwise. It allows an 18-year-old freshman to face other athletes close to their age with similar physicalities.
Moore and Arrington both find there is value in the reps that athletes receive at the junior college level. They are able to see more playing time off-the-bat than they might at a four-year school. If a player isn't ready to be thrown into the fire, time at a junior college can help ease them into collegiate baseball.
There are no rules regarding play/practice time at the NJCAA level; however, teams are recommended to stay under 20 hours a week. There are also looser stipulations on fall practices and games as compared to the NCAA that allow athletes more time on the field.
Arrington's goal as a junior college coach is to suit the needs of his student-athletes in order to develop them for the next step, whether it be a four-year institution or the start of their life after baseball. Not every junior college baseball player is going to continue on to the next level and that is OK. There is still space for those student-athletes.
"Junior college is a great stepping stone. It's a great transitional piece to something larger down the line," Arrington said. "Over the last 15 years or so, there are more career paths, two-year career paths."
Ohio's Will Sturek experienced the development side of the junior college route. Sturek didn't receive much playing time in high school and wasn't sure if college baseball was in the cards for him.
Rather than retire his cleats at the end of his high school career, Sturek found himself at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, Iowa, after taking a tour with his twin brother, Michael.
Abbie Kinney | For The Post
Sturek used his time at North Iowa wisely. He was an immature freshman who didn't quite have the chops to make the starting lineup, but he continued to show up to practice each day. Eventually, Sturek's time in the sun arrived.
"I just thought about redshirting my freshman year. I didn't play for I think 25 games, but I got shoved into a pinch-hit role in the bottom of the seventh inning down 3-2 and I hit a home run. Then I just never left the lineup after that," Sturek said.
COVID-19 hit right as Sturek's time at North Iowa ended and he found himself among those junior college players who debated whether to continue their careers. Sturek was tempted to return home to Minnesota and attend a university his friends were at.
His dad encouraged him to search for other opportunities, which led him to a Zoom call with the Ohio staff. Sturek liked the staff and thought that Ohio could be the place for him. He never saw himself as a Division I baseball player, but the opportunity was in front of him.
It took three months for Sturek to hear back from Ohio, but he's glad he did.
"I was actually playing golf. I think it was after hole nine, I'd just made a birdie, and I see in the cart that my phone's ringing," Sturek said.
The Minnetonka, Minnesota, native took the offer and packed his bags for Athens. Once he settled into his new lifestyle, it didn't take long for Sturek to realize the differences between junior college and NCAA Division I baseball.
One of the main differences is the money invested and cultivated among the levels.
Four-year institutions, especially those in large conferences such as the Southeastern Conference, earn a large chunk of revenue from television deals, among other things. A junior college is often solely based on the finances of the tax base in the community in which the school is placed.
Finances bleed into smaller things. Moore and Arrington have had to perform field maintenance on their respective junior college fields as coaches because there isn't a full-time staff to take care of the field. Another area that is affected is equipment. There are no large equipment hauls for junior college athletes. They have to pitch in to get the gear they want.
"San Jacinto is one of the finest institutions when it comes to supporting our needs, whether it's through scholarships or supporting our student-athletes or our budget costs, but as a whole, there is a large separation between the two when it comes to those facets," Arrington said.
Sturek recalled that one of the biggest differences between junior college and Division I life is that equipment doesn't just arrive. The athletes have to work for it, not just on the field.
"We didn't get much. We had to fundraise for all of it," Sturek said. "I worked Minnesota Vikings games, Minnesota Golden Gophers games and concerts just to get a glove."
Recent developments in Name, Image and Likeness have also begun to separate junior colleges from NCAA Division I schools, too. The financial accommodations from the deal are likely to pique student-athletes' interest in transferring to and playing for schools that have more financial options.
“You’re creating a trust. You want to build up their inner feelings that they have a worth. They are valuable. That transition that I see in those kids all of a sudden develops and they get better and better because they use it as something that has encouraged them to get stronger rather than something that has taken away their joy or who they are.”-San Jacinto College coach Tom Arrington
Despite the differences, there's still fierce competition at the junior college level. There's a lot of heart in those programs because everyone is fighting for something. Every trip on the junior college route is different, and it can be an extremely humbling experience for some depending on how they landed at a junior college.
Abbie Kinney | For The Post
“You’re creating a trust. You want to build up their inner feelings that they have a worth. They are valuable,” Arrington said. “That transition that I see in those kids all of a sudden develops and they get better and better because they use it as something that has encouraged them to get stronger rather than something that has taken away their joy or who they are.”
“Juco Bandits” have seen it all. Sturek and Ohio’s other junior college veterans have a special bond because they went through similar experiences. They’ve got a unique work ethic that only a junior college veteran could have.
Moore sees the appreciation that comes from the former junior college players when it comes to the little things. He also appreciates what junior college players have brought to the program and what it taught him as a coach. Moore is still a fan of developing players from freshman year to graduation, but a few junior college athletes are always welcome.
“It’s a grind. That’s the bottom line. It’s a grind for everybody. It’s a grind for coaches. It’s a grind for players, but for whatever reason, it’s fun. I think nothing but positive things about junior college baseball because I think it’s helped our program.”-Ohio coach Craig Moore
“It’s a grind. That’s the bottom line,” Moore said. “It’s a grind for everybody. It’s a grind for coaches. It’s a grind for players, but for whatever reason, it’s fun. I think nothing but positive things about junior college baseball because I think it’s helped our program.”
Junior college baseball is on the rise. The NJCAA JUCO World Series sells out almost every year and games are starting to be broadcast online. More student-athletes are seeing junior college as a good thing, rather than something to shy away from.
Only the strong survive the JUCO route, but the lessons learned and intangibles gained along the way are worth it.