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Arizona’s best kept baseball secret

Small program has churned out over 150 players selected in MLB draft
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 11:13 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 25, 2022 at 12:32 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - If a baseball field could talk, the one at Central Arizona College would have plenty of stories to tell.

“We’ve been fortunate some pretty big names have come through here,” said Central Arizona head coach Anthony Gillich.

If you’re looking for a flashy stadium, state-of-the-art facilities and tailgates, you’ve come to the wrong place.

If you want history, grit and bare-bones baseball, you may have found heaven.

“We preach for teams to come at us because we know we’re going to beat them,” said player Jaylen Rae.

Baseball breathes life into Coolidge, where the number of cotton plants is larger than the number of people who call it home.

It’s a place where the sound of silence is only interrupted by the crack of a bat.

“College life, the parties, the football games are all secondary. We don’t have any of these,” Gillich said.

It doesn’t seem like it would be an easy sell to 18 and 19-year-old kids, but they’re flocking to Central Arizona College.

They are coming from other countries and continents to learn from Gillich.

“I try not to sell them. I try to talk about the things I believe in,” he said.

Gillich’s philosophy is built on maximum effort and no excuses.

“We don’t have the most facilities, amenities or travel budget but we have the field, the time, the bats and balls,” Gillich said. “We hold people accountable, there’s not an excuse to hang your hat on. If you didn’t get it done, you didn’t get it done.”

In baseball, numbers tell a story and for Gillich that story is one of staggering success.

In his seven years at the helm, he’s become the program’s winningest coach. Last year, he led his team to its most successful season ever.

Gillich’s stat line speaks for itself, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider the program’s success started long before he had even heard about Central Arizona College.

The program was founded in 1976. Since then, well over 150 players have been drafted into the majors and 19 have played at the sport’s top level.

Central Arizona was the catapult that launched Doug Mathis, now the Texas Rangers’ pitching coach, and many others into the pros.

It’s where five-time All-Star Doug Jones threw a no-hitter in 1978.

It’s where three-time national coach of the year and University of Arizona legend Mike Candrea played. It is where he got his coaching start as a baseball assistant.

It’s also where World Series champion and two-time Gold Glove winner Ian Kinsler hit .408 and stole 22 bases.

It’s where three separate head coaches have each won a national championship in the last five decades.

“It’s not just, ‘Hey, the program got hot for a 10-year span,’” Gillich said.

The first title came in 1976 under first head coach Kenny Richardson.

It took almost three decades for the team’s second title.

Clint Myers, who won two College World Series softball titles at Arizona State, led Central Arizona to the 2002 crown.

Gillich earned Central Arizona’s most recent championship in 2019.

“I think there’s a responsibility, I know I feel it,” Gillich said. :The program has been good for a long time, so I didn’t want it to go downhill on my watch. So I do feel that burden.”

The secret to Gillich’s success lies in understanding he is the product of all the other Central coaches who came before him. He’s studied them and made it a point to speak to as many of them as he could.

He chatted with Richardson about a Central rite of passage, running a nearby mountain that becomes more of a climb than a run in the Arizona heat.

“I asked him jokingly,” said Gillich. “I said, ‘did you ever have your guys run the mountain?’ And he would be like, ‘every damn day, every damn day.’”

He’s heard rumors and stories from alumni who build the foundation of the program.

“The 1976 team always tells stories,” said Gillich. “They won a national championship, but after losses they would drop them off at the exit off the I-10 and make them run home.”

Gillich has taken in all of it and studied it. The history, the tradition, the different approaches and philosophies and put his own spin on it.

The numbers don’t lie, what he’s doing is working.

“One phrase we use in our program is 2.85%,” said Gillich. “We have 31 players, four coaches. That’s 35 people in the program. You divide that by 100, that’s 2.85%, it shows that everyone has value.”

Success is important, in life and in baseball, but that’s not what matters to Gillich. What does is showing each of his 2.85% that this is their field of dreams.

“It is certainly a special place,” Gillich said.

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