College of the Canyons’ baseball fell just one run short of a trip to the California Community College Athletic Association state tournament. It wasn’t the finish the Cougars had hoped for, but it was by far the best finish in years for a program that is consistently in the playoffs.
Head coach Chris Cota led the team in his 22nd season to a 28-19 overall record. Cota’s 2023 team shined all over the diamond with standout pitching, defense and a deep, powerful offense.
Canyons batted .323 collectively and scored 407 runs with 558 hits in 2023, outscoring its opponents by over 100 runs.
“There were no surprises,” Cota said in a phone interview. “One through nine, we were tough outs through every game and our pitchers were great players. I knew we had good players and we got exactly what we expected out of all of them.”
The Cougars were led at the plate by Western State Conference Player of the Year Andy Ambriz. The sophomore batted .421, slugged .721 with 83 hits, 19 doubles and 12 home runs on the season.
Freshman Colin Yeaman, a Saugus alumnus, also batted over .400 for COC and became a vital member of the team in his first collegiate season.
“From the start, I just tried to not do too much,” Yeaman said in a phone interview. “Hitting behind Andy Ambriz and Andy Allanson made me feel like I didn’t have to do too much so that helped me not get into any bad slumps.”
The team was also no stranger to scoring in the clutch as they posted three walk-off wins, all in conference play. Yeaman perhaps had one of the most memorable moments of the season, hitting a walk-off grand slam to beat Los Angeles Valley, 8-4.
West Ranch alumnus Jake Schwartz blasted a two-run homer in the ninth to beat Antelope Valley.
Canyons got off to a strong start in non-conference play even with a tougher schedule in place to get the squad more battle-tested.
“We played a tough non-conference schedule,” Cota said. “We figured if we could play these tough teams early it’ll help us in the postseason. When we got into conference, we thought we were ready to go and we were.”
The team featured 31 players, 14 of whom were local, with just one out-of-state player rostered, Xavier Stoker.
Stoker was one of several sophomores who returned to the team in 2023 after 2022’s 22-22 season. There was a slight bump in wins but Stoker saw something different in his new team.
“It was a 100% night-and-day difference,” Stoker said in a phone interview. “This year felt like a championship team and the team chemistry was there. Last year nobody was in the cages or staying after. This year, everyone was in the cages, we all came early and I think that’s what paid dividends. We were properly conditioned to do what we needed to do. We had some really good baseball players this year.”
Stoker started seeing the pieces fall together in the fall and knew his team had the chance to do something special. The sophomore was one of several key pitchers including Gavino Rosales, Tyler Biggs, Brooks Snyder, Malakai Correll and the only two-way player, Jake Schwartz.
Rosales led the way, going 6-0 with 74 strikeouts and a 4.14 ERA.
“I think we really figured out we were good towards the end of fall,” Stoker said. “We knew we were going to be good from the get-go. It was just a matter of if we could put it all together. There wasn’t really a hole in our lineup.”
The team grinded through the offseason, with all of its great batters constantly facing off with its standout arms on the mound.
“Practices were cutthroat,” Stoker said. “You always want the bragging rights. We did live at-bats and everyone was talking crap to each other. It was competitive but it was good. Our pitchers were able to make our offense better and vice versa. Everyone wanted the bragging rights. It was fun.”
The team started and ended its season against Saddleback College. Canyons opened up the season with a 6-2 loss but overcame the defeat with a 12-1 victory the next day. The Cougars went on to win six of their next seven games.
COC was consistent all season. The squad’s one slump was a brief one, where it lost five of six conference games just before the postseason. The losses were enough to knock Canyons out of contention for a WSC South title.
One of the top highlights of the season was catcher Andy Allanson’s three-run walk-off to beat Glendale, 16-15, in the 11th inning. Even in the slump, the Cougars never stopped believing they could compete with any of the top teams.
“Even though we lost the Glendale series it showed us we can hang with a lot of the top teams,” Yeaman said. “It gave us a confidence boost. Andy Allanson hit a walk-off home run in game two and that was the loudest I’ve ever yelled in my life.”
Canyons held its head high during the stretch and the team’s confidence never withered. COC knew there were some issues to bump out but felt they had the group to overcome any skid.
“From a team standpoint, there was a bit where we needed to figure things out on both sides of the ball,” Yeaman said. “We knew we had a really special team and kept our heads high. Every game we had a talk to take everything one pitch at a time and not get too ahead. That was a big part of our success.”
The team quickly snapped out of the slump with a 12-10 win over Citrus. Glendale and Citrus, two of the best teams in the state, were both able to take series wins over the Cougars. However, COC was enthused as they were in every game and were only outscored by two runs in each series.
The Cougars made the postseason and entered as the 19th seed of 24 in the SoCal Regional Playoffs.
COC drew a familiar foe in the first round in the No. 6 Orange Coast Pirates. Canyons fell to Orange Coast in their regular-season meeting but stormed past the Pirates in the postseason.
The Cougars won game one, 16-6, before taking game two, 13-11.
Canyons then opened up the Super Regional bracket with a loss to Grossmont, but with a shot at redemption, the team carried on. The team beat Southwestern to get another chance at Grossmont and the bats didn’t let up. COC put up a staggering 30 runs in a two-game sweep and advanced to the third round of regionals with yet another familiar foe in Saddleback.
The Cougars shocked the Bobcats in game one with a 6-5 victory. Saddleback took game two and forced a game three. The two teams battled in a hard-fought long third game, where COC nearly took victory in the 10th inning with a Schwartz sacrifice fly to take a 4-3 lead. Canyons was just three outs away from a trip to the state tournament but Saddleback rallied to win the game.
The two teams were incredibly close in their matchup. The Bobcats took three of five games from COC in 2023, only outscoring the Cougars by one run and out-hitting them by five hits.
Canyons nonetheless revitalized its baseball program and several Cougars were honored by the WSC. On top of Ambriz taking home Player of the Year, Yeaman and Allanson were named to the first team. Sophomore Charlie Rocca picked up second-team honors while Schwartz, Rosales and Jovan Camacho were honorable mentions.
Cota knows the players did all the work on the field but still was over the moon about his 2023 coaching staff.
“(The coaching staff) is probably more important than anything I’ve mentioned,” Cota said. “My coaching staff and pitching coach did a great job keeping our group together. I couldn’t be happier with the group we’ve got there.”
Not all of Cota’s sophomores are committed to move on to four-year schools but the skipper knows most of them are talented enough and will find homes soon. Stoker has committed to play on at Chaminade University in Hawaii. However, he is still excited for the future of his program with all the talent returning and joining the Cougars in 2024.
“I’m really excited to see what happens next year because we had a lot of really talented freshmen,” Stoker said. “We really put COC on the map this year for baseball. It was all the hard work we put in. There’s some really good baseball players coming up, even some redshirts. Expect some big things out of COC.”