In a team and league composed primarily of Division I college baseball players, it can be difficult for Division III and junior college (JUCO) players to make their marks. Yet four Bethesda Big Train players shattered any small school stigma by delivering standout performances and serving as team leaders during the Big Train’s run to the 2023 Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League (CRSCBL) title.
Outfielder Dean Toigo (Oregon), along with pitchers Brandon Cassedy (Christopher Newport), Jack Robinson (Roanoke College), and Jack Hostetler (Whitman College), all completed their spring seasons playing for JUCOs or D-III colleges, while their other Big Train teammates came from larger, Division I schools.
Unlike in college ball, in the Ripken league, a JUCO ace can face a Power Five slugger in any given game. With their summer league teams, the differences in coaching, support, and financial backing between the players’ college teams significantly falls away, creating a more even playing field where the superior players come out on top.
“[It] doesn't really matter who’s at the plate, it's going to be the same focus,” said Hostetler, describing his approach when pitching against D-I players. “It'll probably get everybody out if it's a really good pitch…for the right situation.”
That approach clearly worked for Hostetler over the course of the season. The right-hander appeared in seven regular season games for the Big Train and had 26 strikeouts across 24 innings pitched. Hostetler came up huge in the postseason, starting and pitching 6.1 innings of one-run ball in Bethesda’s championship-clinching win over the Alexandria Aces in game two of the LCS finals.
Hostetler pitching in game two of LCS against the Aces.
The Big Train’s other D-III pitchers, Brandon Cassedy and Jack Robinson, also pitched well, with Robinson recording eight strikeouts in his 13.2 innings of work and Cassedy boasting a league-leading 0.64 ERA. Cassedy was a key component of Bethesda’s championship run, pitching seven innings in the team’s important game one semi-finals victory over the Cropdusters. Robinson also pitched 1.2 scoreless innings of relief in the postseason.
Cassedy rose to the occasion against D-I-level competition with the Big Train, an opportunity he relished. “It's testing my abilities to see what I can do,” said Cassedy. “I had the chance to play D-I, so I kind of wanted to prove myself in this league. And that's what [Big Train Manager] Sal [Colangelo] tried to get me to do when he recruited me.”
On the offensive end, Dean Toigo, hailing from the California JUCO Cypress College, was a mainstay in the middle of the Big Train lineup. And he got hot in the playoffs, taking advantage of earning starts in all five games by smashing two home runs and two doubles, along with tallying seven RBIs and four runs scored.
This across-the-board success was not lost on these D-III/JUCO players. “Me, Jack [Hostetler], Brandon Cassedy, all of us have done well this year,” said Robinson. “It's a big step for people at D3, kind of showing some love for them.”
The four players described fond memories and positive experiences at their D-III/JUCO schools, all satisfied with the paths they chose. Hostetler discussed playing for Whitman College, a private liberal arts school with around 1,500 students located in Southeastern Washington state.
“Our program is pretty well-funded. We have pretty good facilities,” said Hostetler. “Since we’re not bringing in [a lot] of guys every year and cutting half of them, the team is pretty tight. And the coaches are extremely nice and helpful, [so I] couldn't ask for anything more from them.”
Toigo reported Cypress’ similarly strong baseball program with a notably high level of competition. “Cypress is a very high-class, high-level JUCO,” said Toigo. “A lot of good competition is played in the conference we're in, and a lot of really good guys come out of it. It helps build a certain maturity and a certain kind of competitiveness where you're able to handle anything at the next level.”
Toigo admires his home run in game one of the LCS against the Aces.
For athletes, committing to a D-III/JUCO school often means guaranteed playing time, even as an underclassman. Cassedy identified this as a major factor in his decision to play for Christopher Newport, a 4,500-person liberal arts university in Newport News, VA.
“The coaches told me I’d see playing time right from the get-go, which was the one thing I really wanted,” noted Cassedy. “I didn't want to go to a big D-I school and possibly have to sit my first two years. I wanted to get the experience of playing college baseball.”
The four players have enjoyed being both athletes and students at their respective schools, as academic opportunities played a role in each of their college choices. Smaller class sizes and student-faculty ratios only add to the advantages of playing at a D-III/JUCO level, which Cassedy explained.
“Class sizes aren’t too big and you can interact with teachers after class,” said Cassedy. “So it didn’t really feel like that much of a jump from high school. [The academic support] was one of the things that really turned me to go [to Christopher Newport].”
Robinson echoed prioritizing his academics as well, especially with the uncertainty and injury potential of being a pitcher. “I just kind of thought, if I got hurt one year, at least I’d still be at a really good school with good schooling and that’s pretty, beyond baseball.” Robinson’s Roanoke College, in Salem, VA, has a student-body of only 2,000.
Along with Whitman’s solid academic programs, Hostetler was motivated by familial ties to the college. “My grandpa played [baseball] at Whitman in the ‘50s…so it’s kind of cool to be a legacy player.”
The Big Train players highlighted a uniquely competitive mindset they’ve gained by playing for D-III/JUCO schools, as if they have a chip on their shoulder.
“I think I can prove myself here,” said Robinson. “Just because you're bigger and you're faster doesn't mean you can beat someone who's smaller or not as strong. I always think the little guy stands out, especially if they’re at a D-III school.”
Robinson pitching in game two of LCS semifinals against the Cropdusters.
The Big Train’s bench coach, Joe McIntyre, hails from a junior college himself, the nearby Montgomery College, where he played in the ‘80s. Before transferring to Virginia Tech and eventually playing in the Phillies organization, McIntyre found great success as an MC Raptor. Coach McIntyre has been in these players’ shoes, so he took notice of this underdog mentality and strong work ethic.
“They're not overmatched, they're not intimidated in any way, shape, or form,” said Coach McIntyre of his D-III/JUCO players. “They are up against guys from Power Five programs, and they fit right in. And the big program guys, they're not big-leaguing them. There's mutual respect [and] they see these guys as good ballplayers.”
A benefit of fielding summer teams with players from different schools and different athletic distinctions is the potential for information exchange. Brandon Cassedy talked about consulting the D-I bullpen arms for pitching advice. “I’m not the hardest throwing guy, so I ask[ed] the bullpen guys what they do to help gain velocity,” said Cassedy. “How they do things differently than me…with lifts, long toss, and arm programs…[so I can] try out different things and see if I can improve.”
Robinson took advantage of these same player resources within the Big Train, adding “a lot of guys who are on Power Five teams [have] been showing me some ropes, showing me what they can do,” said Robinson. “[The good thing] about summer ball is you can ask questions and they're not going to think anything of it. Everyone here loves talking about baseball, so they show you their tricks of the trade and you show them your tricks of the trade.”
Coach McIntyre witnessed this “helpful” information sharing in action during the daily grind of the summer season. “It's a long day of baseball and the bullpen pitchers are talking and goofing around, but they are sharing information. They are talking baseball,” said McIntyre. “For the guys at the smaller programs, it definitely helps them to hear what these guys are going through at the Power Five programs.”
Cassedy pitching in game one of LCS Semifinals against the Cropdusters.
The three pitchers all intend to stay at their D-III schools for the rest of their undergraduate careers. Toigo, however, officially transferred to the University of Oregon over the summer, something he doesn’t believe would have been possible without taking the junior college route after high school.
“I didn’t really have any D-I options out of high school. Covid kind of messed [recruitment] all up,” said Toigo, a 2021 high school graduate. “[But] I've always had a goal to go to a Power Five out of Cyprus. Oregon was the first bigger school that reached out to me, and it seemed like a perfect fit.”
Toigo, Cassedy, Hosetetler, and Robinson, along with Coach McIntyre, all reject the idea that their D-III/JUCO affiliations make them any lesser than their D-I counterparts.
“It doesn't matter where you are, people are always watching,” said Robinson. “So everyone’s fighting a bit harder, [we’re] a lot more into the game.”
Coach McIntyre directly agreed with Robinson’s sentiment, noting, “[t]hese D-III/JUCO guys are working every bit as hard, and maybe in some circumstances even harder. But they have something to prove, and they do it.”
He looks forward to following the careers of these D-III/JUCO Big Train players, all of whom he believes have great potential. “They've done amazing things,” concluded McIntyre.
This quartet has demonstrated how hard work and commitment, rather than school affiliation, makes the difference in a player’s ultimate success. These four will likely pave the way for other players from smaller schools to join the Big Train in the future.
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