Greg Hansen: Tucsonans built team at Yavapai in 1970s

2013-04-12T00:00:00Z 2013-04-12T00:15:36Z Greg Hansen: Tucsonans built team at Yavapai in 1970sGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If you were a coach at the new junior college in Prescott, Yavapai College, a school with no baseball field, no recruiting budget and no guarantee it could offer anyone a baseball scholarship, the most preposterous of all statements in 1973 would've been:

You will win the 1975 national championship, and you will do so almost exclusively with Tucson ballplayers.

But on May 24, 1975, in Grand Junction, Colo., the Yavapai Roughriders started this lineup, in part, at the NJCAA opener against Iowa Western College:

1. Larry Moser, Sahuaro, DH

3. Jim Schwanke, Sahuaro, SS

4. Joe Romero, Tucson, C

5. Jaime Lopez, Tucson, 1B

6. Gary Skow, Sahuaro, RF

7. John Emmett, Flowing Wells, CF

9. Don Hanna, Sahuaro, P

In the bullpen was Sahuaro grad Bruce Ferguson.

Yavapai went 5-0 in the national tournament, beating defending national champion Meramec (Mo.) College in the title game.

"We were loaded," says Skow, now an engineer at Raytheon. "We had all played high school and American Legion ball together in Tucson, and, well, there wasn't a shortage of talent in those days."

Indeed, Rincon, Tucson and Sahuaro won back-to-back-to-back-to-back state titles from 1971 to 1974. That's four straight.

"I had never heard of Yavapai," says Romero, a retired TPD officer. "But once all of those Tucson kids got up there, wow, it just clicked. We were very good."

On Saturday night, that most unlikely of all national championship teams will be inducted into the Yavapai College sports Hall of Fame.

"I'll tell you how good we were," says Schwanke, a former baseball coach at LSU and now a player agent living in Texas. "We opened the playoffs against Arizona Western in Yuma, and Don Hanna pitched a no-hitter. He went 17-1. That team had no chance against us."

What makes the story of the '75 Roughriders more compelling is that its pitching coach, Jim McKaskle, now an insurance agent living in Wickenburg, recruited those eight Tucson ballplayers with nothing more than a vision and by the seat of his pants.

McKaskle grew up in Tucson, graduated from the UA and began a coaching/teacher career in Lompoc, Calif., before settling in at the new school in Prescott, an unpaid assistant for young head coach Gary Ward.

The new school didn't fully commit to a baseball program. It eliminated tuition waivers in 1973. McKaskle remembers that Ward considered leaving; he told the school board it might as well eliminate the three-year-old baseball program, which had been forced to play at Prescott High School.

Desperate, and with no established recruiting network, McKaskle contacted three retired Tucson prep baseball coaches and asked if they would evaluate local players and send him a list of the 10 leading players. Given Tucson's mother lode of baseball talent in the early '70s, it might've been difficult to limit those lists to 10.

"Our American Legion team, which was composed of Sahuaro and Tucson players, was outstanding," says Skow. "Just to make the starting lineup was very difficult. After a while, I got to know coach McKaskle. He'd come around, talk to us. I liked the idea of a new school.

"I remember picking rocks off the infield that first year. Everything was new. But I'll tell you this, it wasn't a fluke. Gary Ward was an outstanding coach. He could teach baseball to anyone. We all bought in. We kinda marched through that thing."

Ward went on to a Hall of Fame career at Oklahoma State, winning 17 conference championships. He also coached Yavapai to the 1977 NJCAA title.

"That was a once-in-a-lifetime team," says Romero, who played in the minor leagues for the Cubs and in the Mexican League. "For me it all started when I hit three home runs in a game, against Santa Rita my senior year. After that, I started getting some attention from Coach McKaskle. I went up there with my teammate, Jaime Lopez. That made it easier for both of us."

Schwanke has made a living as a coach at LSU and Oklahoma State, and now he scouts, evaluates and negotiates with the nation's top amateur players. Here's how he breaks down the rest of Yavapai's Tucson Eight:

Hanna: "He was as good a pitching prospect as you could find. He went 17-1 at Yavapai and then 15-1 at ASU a year later. If he had not hurt his arm, he'd have been in the big leagues."

Lopez: "He could really hit. He had a loose swing with good bat speed. He was like a cobra, the way he attacked the ball."

Skow: "Very strong, very disciplined hitter. He had big-league power."

Emmett: "An instinctive player with great hand-eye control. He played well beyond his physical tools."

Romero: "Innately strong. Really gifted. He converted to catcher and made the best of it."

Moser: "Quick-twitch athlete. Good runner and good arm. A switch-hitter; the ball jumped off his bat."

Ferguson: "He was one of the top high school players you've seen. He had some arm issues at Yavapai, and then played several years in the minors. Very good athlete. Wound up at the UA."

Schwanke transferred to the UA before his career was ended by an injury. He joined Hanna, Romero and Lopez on the All-World Series team of 1975.

"When we started at Yavapai, Mesa College was the national power. It had won it all in 1970, 1971 and 1972," says McKaskle. "We even wore 'beat Mesa' in a patch on our uniforms one year. But after '75, that patch came off. We became the team to beat. It all started with those kids from Tucson."

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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