The Chico State Wildcats are on the mission. Coming off their first California Collegiate Athletic Association championship since 2006, the Wildcats players set some lofty goals for themselves this season.
The No. 1 team in the country, however, is playing even beyond what they expected. In fact, their entire season has been a bit of the unexpected.
Chico State sits at 27-5, currently 20-1 atop the CCAA North Division. Despite being the favorites to repeat as champions, head coach Dave Taylor hoped to temper expectations.
“The guys sat down in January and came up with their goals," Taylor said. "Their ultimate goal was to win the national championship. I personally tried to talk them out of it. I thought we won the conference championship [in 2016], then we went to regional and got pounded. I wasn't sure we were ready to make that leap. They were stubborn and wanted to keep it, and they’ve pushed towards it since the first day.”
Now, for the second week in a row, Chico State sits atop the NCBWA rankings. Even for the players, it is a bit of the unexpected.
“I don’t know that it’s something we expected, but it’s definitely something we were pushing for," senior first baseman Jimbo Pernetti said. "We came in knowing that we had a lot of guys returning and added a bunch of new guys that were really good. We had a chance to compete a high level.”
The roster was very senior-laden, with 16 experienced veterans suiting up for the Wildcats this year. One of those seniors was senior Andru Cardenas.The weekend of their March 25 road trip, it was more of the unexpected.
Cardenas fell ill with a rare disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. As the Widlcats were preparing to head south to Cal State Dominguez Hills, they were forced to leave their fallen teammate behind, uncertain of what was happening.
“It’s a very close group," Taylor said. "Last year was a bunch of new guys, it was a good group talent wise. They really grew together, and it carried over to this year. Andru kept everybody loose, especially the seniors. His personality being out there everyday, and then all of a sudden it stopped. It was a little hard for them to adjust to not having him around and really not knowing what to expect with this syndrome. That unknown was uneasy.”
“At first it was pretty scary," Pernetti said. "He is my roommate so he and I are a little bit closer. So I was more scared and thoughtful of him than being focused on a game. When he got sick, it was the weekend of his birthday. We were down south playing a series, and we thought it would be good to bring him back a few wins.”
They did just that. Since Cardenas entered the hospital, the Wildcats have played inspired ball, winning six in a row. Pernetti's bat in particular has come alive, as he recently won the CCAA Player of the Week Award. His motivation is clear.
“I was inspired by him," Pernetti said. "He’s over there fighting for his life at one point and I get to be out here playing baseball. I see how hard he fought off the field just to be able to eat on his own and breath on his own, and he finally got back home. It gave me a little motivation just to make him proud.”
“It’s a cliché, but these guys are brothers," Taylor said. "You spend time in the weight room, locker room, and on the field. You go home, they all live in the same apartment complex. This is a brother that’s not feeling very well and there is some concern about his future and overall health. It was traumatic for them.”
It hasn't just been their program that has been inspired by Cardenas' fight, but the community has rallied behind him as well. Together, through a YouCaring page, they have raised over $40,000 to help fund Cardenas recovery.“It’s a testament to their character," Taylor said. "They’re all so close, there’s just not that division you sometimes see in a clubhouse. We talk about him everyday. He’s with us, I mean the guys got batting practice jerseys with his name on the back. They made a conscious effort to keep him involved, somehow. That part is really cool.”
Chico State's skipper won his 500th career victory this past weekend, which itself may be a bit unexpected. After suffering health issues of his own this past offseason, Taylor was just happy to be able to acheive the milestone.
“I had a chance to reflect on my first win in Wyoming in 1996 when it all started," Taylor said. "I’ve had good coaches, good players and good support and I’m just so appreciative. I have had some health issues, so I’m just glad I had another chance to coach. That part has been personally rewarding.”
This weekend, Chico State will play the Division II series of the weekend. They head to La Jolla to square off against CCAA foe, and South Division leader, No. 15-ranked UC San Diego.
“UC San Diego and Chico State, whether it be regular season, conference tournament or regional, they’ve always been dogfights," Taylor said. "It’s always competitive, high-intense games. We haven’t had those grind-y games lately, so this will be good for the guys. I love playing these guys. Eric [Newman] does a good job preparing those guys. It’s two good programs fighting it out.”
“We’re just really focused on each day at practice right now," Pernetti added. "We know they are really good, they have a really good team all around, especially that pitching staff. We’re more focused on what we’ve been doing well and what’s been working for us and trying to keep that going.”
Where the Wildcats go from here is uncertain. Should they capture their second consecutive CCAA title, the face the brutal West Region, with teams from the competitive PacWest joining the gauntlet to see who advances to the championships.
What they have gained is perspective. They are playing a game they love for the brother they fight for. From their tiny community in Chico, they've learned a valuable life lesson.
Expect the unexpected.
“It’s almost overwhelming to see how many people care about the program and Andru in general," Pernetti said. "The support of everyone around us is just that. Overwhelming.”