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Santa Rosa Junior College baseball coach Damon Neidlinger sets up competitions for his players at practice. Not between players, not among them. For them.

“They’re supposed to train competitively against what their best is, rather than the guy next to them,” the coach said.

It’s similar to a swimmer or runner racing the clock, not necessarily the person next to them.

The method has fostered a team-first mentality, one the Bear Cubs have bought into this year en route to a conference championship and No. 1 ranking going into the state playoffs on Friday.

When you’re fighting for a starting position or more playing time, comparisons can be divisive, Neidlinger admits.

But the approach has instead bonded the team.

“They have a very connected brotherhood,” he said this week during practice. “It’s fair, it keeps a pulse on who does well.”

It’s made clear the hard work is for the team, not an individual’s success.

This year, the Bear Cubs have had healthy doses of both.

As a team, the Bear Cubs are 29-6 overall and 17-4 for the Big 8 title, and are the top seed in the Northern California regional community college playoffs, which begin Friday.

When the league announced individual awards Wednesday, SRJC swept the top spots.

Two sophomores, both Maria Carrillo grads, were named MVPs.

Infielder Jake Scheiner was voted the Big 8’s most valuable player. In 35 games, the 6-foot, 200-pound Scheiner hit .353, sixth best in the league. His six home runs, 14 doubles and 43 runs batted in were tops among all Big 8 hitters.

Right-handed pitcher Alec Rennard was named most valuable pitcher.

The dominant Rennard led the league in multiple categories as well.

He went 10-1, the most wins in the Big 8, threw the most innings (82.1) and had a 1.64 earned run average.

He did not give up a home run, allowed just 55 hits and 15 runs, and struck out 58 while allowing just 7 walks.

Two others made the Big 8 first team: centerfielder Bryce Nagata (.392) and first baseman Ryder Kuhns (.341).

Second team honors went to pitcher Matt Estes (7-0, 2.64 ERA) and outfielder Zach Hall (.328 in league).

“A lot started as freshmen last year, so it was no surprise to have some success,” Neidlinger said. “But not this good. If you’d have said 29-6, I’d have taken that in a heartbeat.”

The Bear Cubs got off to a hot start this year, going 10-1 in their first 11 games.

But fairly quickly, they had a dose of adversity, losing right-handed reliever Anthony Bender, a Casa Grande grad, to a strained oblique. The 6-4, 210-pound sophomore — who was also the cleanup hitter — hasn’t played all season.

“To continue doing this without him is something that is a very, very good accomplishment,” Neidlinger said. “It wasn’t the next man up, it was the next men up.”

Neidlinger has used virtually his entire roster to win.

Most of that roster is home-grown. Seventeen of the 32 players on the roster graduated from Redwood Empire schools.

Montgomery grad Jared Noonan stepped up as a reliever and earned four saves.

Scheiner and Rennard, the Carrillo grads, exemplified the unselfishness Neidlinger tries to encourage with the Bear Cubs.

Their quiet hard work, before and after practice, is paying off.

Scheiner won a scholarship to the University of Houston, which has been ranked as high as No. 9 this season.

He cemented Houston’s decision with his walk-off three-run homer in a 5-4 win over American River on March 31.

It was a childhood fantasy moment. Two outs, bottom of the ninth inning, down 4-2, Scheiner came to bat with a UH scout watching.

“I knew what pitch was coming and put a good swing on it,” he said. “It was something you dream about. … It was a pretty good way to get a scholarship.”

Rennard has put in three years of hard work, putting his academic future first.

When he graduates from SRJC he will have three associate degrees, in biology, chemistry and natural sciences. He intends to go to med school and serve in the Air Force.

“From the first practice, I knew we had a great group of guys,” he said. “We were all playing for the state championship.”

The run toward state starts on Friday as the Bear Cubs host No. 16 Reedley Community College, 24-12 overall, in a best-of-three series over two days.

Game one is at 2 p.m. Friday, with game two at 11 a.m. Saturday. If necessary, game three will start shortly after game two ends.

Super regionals, sectionals and the state championships will follow over the next three weekends.

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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