Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)
January 6, 2016, Victoria BC (ISN) – If you want a prime example of what it takes to realize a dream, look no further than former Victoria Eagles baseball player Brendan Turcotte. Armed with nothing more than his baseball talents, a solid work ethic, tons of enthusiasm and a beaming smile, Turcotte, an un-recruited player with no scholarship and no guarantees of a spot on the team, went down to Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Arizona last September and promptly played his way on to perhaps the top Junior College baseball team in North America.
Victoria native Brendan Turcotte has traded in the crimson and black of the Victoria Eagles and the dugouts of Lambrick Park, for the green and gold of the Vaqueros and the warmer climes of Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Arizona just south of Phoenix (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN).
The Central Arizona College (CAC) Vaqueros have a long and storied history in the Junior College baseball world. Located just south of Phoenix, the school has a tradition of producing top notch baseball teams, having won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) World Series in 1976 and 2002, participated in the event in 1999, 2008 and 2011, named NJCAA Region 1 Champions 11 times, including six years in a row from 2007-2012 and named Arizona Community College Athletic Conference (ACCAC) Champions eight times, including four out of the last five years (2011-2014).
Over 150 players have been drafted directly from CAC to the pros and 16 have gone on to play at the Major League level including All-Stars Ian Kinsler (currently with Detroit), Tom Pagnozzi (St. Louis 1987-1998) and Doug Jones (7 teams, 1982-2000), as well as Victoria native Rich Harden who played for Oakland, the Cubs and Texas over a nine-year career. The school also regularly graduates players to 4-year college and university programs, with 25 players over the past two seasons moving up to play at that level.
Needless to say, with such a high caliber program, the school does a great job at recruiting, continuously attracting top caliber players from across the United States. As such, it is very rare for a non-recruited player to stroll into town and earn a spot on their 30-man roster.
So why then, would a young man from Victoria, British Columbia, armed with scholarship offers and opportunities from other schools, forgo all those to roll the dice and try for a spot, essentially as a “walk-on,” at CAC?
Turcotte, here in action with the Victoria Eagles in 2015, knew from Grade 8 on that he wanted to play at Central Arizona and worked hard to pursue that goal (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
For Turcotte, the answer was pretty simple and relates to his goal to someday play baseball at the professional level. “To help me reach that goal, I simply want to play at the top schools that will help me get there,” said Turcotte during a visit home to Victoria over the Christmas break. “I believe CAC is the best Junior College baseball program in the country and I’ve been wanting to go there since, I think, Grade 8, when I realized that the Junior College route could be a better route for me. I know it is a place I can develop and get better, both on the field and in the classroom, so that I have a chance, in two years, to take the next step and get to a top NCAA Division 1 school.”
Turcotte’s attraction to CAC was also fuelled by baseball alumni from Victoria who have attended the school in the past, including Harden, as well as Jason Gibson, Christian Winstanley and former Victoria Eagle Nic Cuckovich, who were local players Turcotte looked up to as a youngster. The number of MLB players that the school has produced also left a strong impression.
“Whether it was in hockey [Turcotte was a goaltender in the Juan De Fuca Minor Hockey Association up to the Midget AAA level] or baseball, I have always wanted to play on the best team possible,” added Turcotte. “For me, in baseball, CAC was that team and I wanted to put myself in a position to play there. I didn’t really care that I didn’t have a set position on the team, or even a guarantee to be on the team. I knew I would have to earn it and went down there with that mindset.”
Although a right fielder by preference, Turcotte pitched a bit for the Eagles in 2015, as well as for the Vaqueros in the fall and could see spot duty on the mound for CAC in 2016 (Photo: Christian J. Stewart)
To initially get on the radar of the coaching staff at CAC, Turcotte had to do some self-promotion, a very common thing for athletes looking to secure college opportunities these days, especially for Canadians looking south of the border. He sent an e-mail to Vaquero’s Head Coach Anthony Gilich in early 2015, along with a recruiting video and hoped for the best. When Gilich offered Turcotte a chance to come down for a visit to the school during March break, Turcotte jumped at the opportunity.
“That visit was awesome for me because it gave me a chance to get an inside look at their program and the school and a chance to take-in and participate in a few practices,” said Turcotte. “I used that field time, maybe just an hour and a half at the most, to practice as hard as I could and tried to make a good impression. At that time, Coach Gilich and the other coaches were very honest and straight up with me with me that there would be no guarantees, but that did not bother me, as I was very confident that I could make the team.”
Coach Gilich confirmed what he told Turcotte during that spring visit, “I told Brendan that it has been rare for a non-recruited player to come to our program and win a spot on the roster. I was very forthright with him that there was a small chance of him contributing and that it would be tough to make the club. To his credit, he just wanted to know that he was going to get a fair opportunity and I assured him he was. We stayed in touch over summer and when he arrived in September, he was in same boat as anyone else…freshman, senior, scholarship, no scholarship…just a bunch of players all competing for the 30 spots we have available.”
In addition to being consistent at the plate, Turcotte worked hard at being the best player defensively, especially in right field, where, like he did with the Eagles, he hopes to see the most of his playing time at CAC (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
And compete he did. Turcotte stepped on to the practice field every day with the goal of being the best player on the field and worked hard on all aspects of his game, including being a consistent hitter and the best player at his position (primarily right field). He feels that work ethic and his attitude were key to him earning a spot. “I tried to be the hardest working player on the team and I think they saw that from me,” said Turcotte. “I also tried to work on being the best player defensively and be consistent at the plate. I think they liked my approach in that regard and the way I swung the bat.”
That work ethic certainly caught the eye of Coach Gilich and the rest of the CAC staff. “In his time here, Brendan has continued to work hard and develop as a baseball player,” said Gilich. “He has a great attitude, he’s always smiling, always having a good time and is a great teammate, but has also shown that he is willing to work hard and that he wants to get better. Those are all important facets of our program and he embodies all of them. For lack of a better term, he forced our hand into keeping him and impressed us all for sure.”
That smile! Turcotte is always smiling and his enthusiasm for the game and attitude were key factors that stood out to CAC Head Coach Anthony Gilich (Photo: Christian J. Stewart)
“It has been fun to go on the ride with Brendan and to watch his progress,” added Gilich. “His chances were slim, nothing was given to him by any means, but he kept opening the door and opening the door and made it in. He tried out and earned it. He wants to be here and we are proud of him for not being deterred, and working hard. The top 30 guys make our team and he was in the top 30. Hats off to him, he is a great kid and hard not to like and it is a special story for sure.”
A .347 hitter with 35 hits, 26 runs, 3 home runs, 16 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in his final year with the Eagles in 2015, Turcotte knows that to get some regular playing time and better develop as a player at CAC, he will have to put up some good numbers and hit the ball consistently when he gets the opportunity to play. “We have a solid team of hitters here and to play, you need to hit the ball well and get on base. Everyone in the lineup can hit the ball, so I can’t stick out as one of the weaker hitters. I need to fit in and that is what I will continue to work hard to do.”
A .347 hitter with the Eagles in 2015, Turcotte knows he will have to produce consistently at the plate for the Vaqueros to see regular playing time in college (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN).
For now, Coach Gilich noted that Turcotte will have the opportunity to play right field, first base and pitch a bit, all in a reserve role, but with plenty of opportunity to get more time. “Outfield will be his main focus, but I am very comfortable with him at first base,” said Gilich. “He pitched for us a bit in the fall too. I would not put it past him to continue to expand his role for us as the season moves along.”
Turcotte credits his time with the Victoria Eagles program as key to helping him with his success thus far at CAC. “The coaching staff there had a great impact on me and put me in the right direction to succeed. They taught me how to play the game the right way, forced me to work hard both on and off the field and taught me to be a good person as well. They gave me an opportunity to play and to develop, which is all I could ask for and I thank them for that.”
The Eagles administration was quick to give thanks right back to Turcotte and acknowledged him as their Most Improved Player at the end of the 2015 season. “Turk is one of the hardest working and nicest players I have ever coached,” said Eagles Head Coach Anthony Pluta. “He always has a smile on his face and I can only wish to have more players like him.” Eagles’ Chair Martin Winstanley echoed that, “Brendan’s accomplishment at CAC highlights the character and values he has that will ensure his future success in baseball and life. The Eagles are very proud of this young man.”
In his final season with the Victoria Eagles, Turcotte (center) was awarded the team’s Most Improved Player (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
Turcotte takes such praise in stride and remains humble knowing that even though the pressure of making the team is gone, the hard work is just beginning. While he has settled nicely into the college life and is adapting well to the independence of living away from home for the first time, his focus now has to be on school – if players don’t do well in classes, they don’t play – and of course, baseball. “As I said, my ultimate goal is to one day play professional baseball,” said Turcotte, “but I know it’s a long process to get there. I want to move up the ranks as fast as I can by proving myself every single day. I am excited to be here at CAC as the first step in that process. I think it is the best possible opportunity for me and now it is up to me to make the most of it.”
No doubt he will do that, but one thing is for certain, if Turcotte’s work ethic and attitude can rub off on his teammates at CAC, and they all work as hard as he will to develop their game through the season, Turcotte and the Vaqueros will be smiling all the way to yet another Confernece title and yet another trip to the 2016 Junior College World Series.