The goal for the Western Nebraska Community College baseball team is simple as they enter the Empire Conference Region IX baseball tournament Thursday in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

                That goal is to continue playing well like they did when they swept Trinidad State College last weekend in the first round and aim for the program’s third Region IX title and second in the last three years. 

                The Cougars open up the 4-team Region Tournament at the UCHealth Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thursday at 3 p.m. when they face McCook Community College. McCook earned a spot in the tournament by defeating Lamar last weekend. 

                The other side of the bracket will pit Southeast Community College against Otero College at noon. Southeast earned a bye into the tournament as the top seed in the conference while Otero defeated Northeastern Junior College in three games. 

                The championship game is slated for Saturday at noon with an if-necessary game scheduled for later Saturday afternoon if needed. The Region IX winner will host the Western District tournament May 18-20. As an added note, Southeast has already qualified for the District tournament as two teams from Region IX will make the tourney. If Southeast wins the regional title, they would host districts and the second-place team would also earn a berth into the district tourney. 

                “This is the year on the rotation that the winner of Region IX gets to host the Western District tournament,” WNCC head coach Mike Jones said. “It is an opportunity for us to bring in some extremely talented community college teams from around the country and bring them to Scottsbluff and let them experience a high level of junior college baseball.” 

                To host the district finals, though, there is just one thing that the Cougar baseball needs to do and that is to win the Region IX tournament. The last time the Cougars won regionals was 2021. But that road will not be easy as the four teams that remain in the tournament all have the potential to get wins. 

                That road starts with McCook where the Cougars and the Indians faced each other six times season with McCook holding the series record at 1-5. The Cougars only win over McCook came on April 7 when WNCC won 9-1 at Cleveland Field. WNCC then dropped the next two contests on the homestand 13-5 and 7-5, and then fell three times on the road to end the regular season. 

                “McCook is extremely dangerous. They have a really good offense and they play with an high energy and they are a very good ball club,” he said. “It will be important for us to keep our composure and to be able to bounce back from some of the offensive explosion they are capable of doing. It is a big field and we will have to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. We will have to have good relays. We will have to stay organized and eliminate giving up big innings.” 

                That big outfield could also be advantageous to the Cougars as well after the offense they showed last weekend when they topped Trinidad State College in the best-of-three series to advance in the tournament. Against Trinidad, WNCC won 24-12 and 13-9. In the 24-12 win, WNCC had 18 hits with two doubles and four home runs, including a grand slam from Dylan Harris.  

                The 13-9 win was also an offensive show by the Cougars with 14 hits and 10 going for extra base hits, including five doubles, a triple, and four home runs. 

                “When our offense is rolling like it was last weekend, it is really dangerous for sure. We have a chance to have a very explosive offense,” Jones said. “On a big field, we have a chance to hit a lot of line drives, we have a chance to hit quite a few doubles, and it will open up some of the singles in front of the outfielders. Our base running needs to be aggressive and take extra bases on their outfielders. We definitely have a chance to score a lot of runs.” 

                McCook is a team that finished second in the Empire Conference North division with a 22-12 conference record and a 35-21 record overall. WNCC was fourth in the North division at 13-19 in the conference and 17-33 overall.  

                McCook’s offense is the highest-scoring offense in Region IX as they have scored 529 runs this season, while the Cougars have scored just 303 runs this season. The team to beat is Southeast, who are 38-15 overall and finished the conference slate with a 27-7 record. The Storm have score 465 runs this season and lead the conference with the lowest runs allowed with 282. Southeast’s opponent, Otero, went 14-20 in conference and 23-33 overall. 

                Anything is possible for the Cougar team if they play like they did against Trinidad State last week, or even the two wins over Southeast three weeks ago when they defeated the Storm 5-2 and 7-3 in two excellent defensive games. 

                Jones said he is proud of his team for staying focused and getting a chance to play for a regional title. In 2021 when WNCC won regionals, they defeated Lamar 12-10 in a come-back win and then topped Southeast 4-3 to win the title.  

                “When you look at the struggles that this team has gone through with the very tough schedule early, the guys were able to stay focused and keep their ultimate goal in mind,” Jones said. “We are a fairly young team also so we have had a lot of guys show growth through the course of the season. I am extremely proud of them. What a great group of people to be around and let’s hope they can keep it rolling.”