Ahead of the program's first regional postseason appearance since 2002, Glendale Community College Coach Chris Cicuto was worried about his team's layoff of more than a week between its regular-season finale and its playoff opener.
Alas, he conceded that although he was worried about so much time off, it was good for his group of Vaqueros that had seemingly battled injuries all season long to have some time to heal up.
Even before the season began, Cicuto lost a pair of possible starters. Then there was Eric Matranga, who blew out his knee during a collision with a teammate. There was Scott Hong, who was having a standout season before it was ended with a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle. And a pair of shoulder injuries to Matt McCallister and Nick Woodward also left the team with holes to fill.
And in reply to the oft asked question of whether a player is hurt or injured, sophomore catcher Erik Suarez could say yes to both. Suarez, the Vaqueros' starting catcher, is currently dealing with a broken index finger and a fractured left hand.
But there's never been a hole to fill at catcher this season.
"He never made it a big deal, ever," Cicuto says. "Everyday he's saying he's fine, he wants to play."
And play Suarez has, contributing mightily to a memorable GCC season that saw them win the Western State Conference South Division title before advancing to today's Super Regional.
Suarez, a Burroughs High graduate, has been a valuable defensive presence as a backstop, a solid hitter in the No. 3 hole, handled a brilliant pitching staff and perhaps just as valuable as any of his contributions has been his ability to captain his team through his perseverance and his ability to exemplify toughness and the role of a team player.
"He's not only tough, but he's mature enough to take on the responsibility as a captain," Cicuto says. "Erik is the type who stepped up."
Through 34 regular-season games, Suarez batted .308 with 25 runs and 18 runs batted in. They're solid numbers, sure, but hardly the kind that jump off the page. Suarez' true worth and contribution to the Vaqueros' cause is much more than that and often times far removed from statistics.
"Just a leader," says reliever Michael Noteware of Suarez as a teammate. "Just a guy who you know is gonna do his job. You don't have to worry about Erik."
Indeed, on a championship team that's dealt with plenty of uncertainty, in large part due to injury, Suarez has been a constant behind the plate, despite suffering through an injury that quite certainly should have kept him off the diamond.
Nonetheless, Suarez can't tell you when it happened. And he's not sure how it happened, either.
"I think it was when I was catching and I caught a ball wrong," he says. "[I think it happened] a couple weeks before [Western State Conference play]."
But he's not sure. The one certainty is that his parents, Glendale college trainers and doctors don't want him to play. But the only two games he's missed all season have been because Cicuto simply gave him a day off.
"It feels like I let my team down if I don't play," Suarez says. "It's the worst feeling in the world."
With the Vaqueros currently amid one of the program's finest seasons of all-time, Suarez has never hesitated to keep playing and has done everything possible to soldier through the pain. He's seen the GCC trainers religiously, tried different wraps — currently he's using a thick gel pad that is then taped up — and finally, just recently, went to see a doctor.
"I was scared they were going to tell me I couldn't play," Suarez says.
And, according to him, that's the news he got. So, for now at least, he's putting off going back. For now, bum hand or not, it's business as usual, which encompasses taking good at-bats, catching a stellar pitching staff and captaining a Vaqueros run that's been full of highlights.
Highlights aren't exactly what Suarez is all about, though.