Arizona Western College must be a great place to go to school and play baseball. After all, Pahrump Valley High School graduate Willie Lucas decided to play at the school in Yuma, Arizona, even after getting quite an eyeful on his initial visit.
“It doesn’t seem like a very nice place,” Lucas acknowledged. “Right when I got out of the car to go into the hotel, there was a gas station robbery right next to the hotel. That wasn’t a very good first impression.”
Lucas had committed to join his brother, Garrett, at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, but Garrett’s negative experience there led him to seek another school and caused Willie to shift gears as well.
The end result of the search was a college of more than 11,000 students with its primary campus in Arizona’s warmest city.
“I’ve heard they have amazing winters,” Lucas said. “The summers are killers, like 120, but I’ve heard winters get down to 50 or 60.”
Lucas is coming off of a senior high school season in which he was named second-team all-state in Class 3A after hitting .370 with 13 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs, 33 runs and 37 RBIs. The Trojans catcher finished with an on-base percentage of .472 and slugged .600. As a junior, his .595 slugging percentage easily led the team, and he hit .381 in making Class 3A first-team all-state.
Those numbers will get your attention, but they are not uncommon among players who wind up at Arizona Western. The talent level in Yuma was shown in this year’s Major League Baseball draft, when two Matadors were selected and three former Matadors who were playing at four-year schools also were taken.
“It seemed to be a really tough school to play at because this year they had five players drafted,” Lucas said. “It’s basically like a boot camp. There’s no time for messing around. They practice seven days a week.”
All that work has paid off, as Arizona Western has sent many players on to four-year colleges, and not just the lesser-known schools. Just in the past three years, former Matadors have transferred to a variety of NCAA Division I schools, including the University of Texas-Arlington, Northern Illinois University, Southeast Missouri State University, Stephen F. Austin State University and Wagner University.
Lucas believes he will see playing time right away.
“I think I have a chance to play right away,” he said. “I asked if I had a chance, and I wondered if the guys who were on scholarship would get treated better, but that’s not the case. I feel as if I do my best out there I’ll have a chance to start.”
That would mean something on a team that has had plenty of recent success.
“The coach has been there for nine years now, and the past three years they went to the Super Regionals,” Lucas said. “(College of Southern Nevada) was ranked No. 1 in nationals, and this team beat them two years ago twice in a row.”
That coach is Drew Keehn, who who led Arizona Western to a school-record 49 wins this past spring, including a second straight region title. Keehn, a University of Arizona graduate who played in the Colorado Rockies organization, has coached nine first-team all-conference players, five second-team picks and 50 dean’s list recipients.
Also important to Lucas was his family’s support, as his mother, father and brother all made the trip to Yuma for his visit.
“My dad, he loves it there, not the place in general but the school, and he really wants me to be a part of the fall program,” he said. “My mom, she just wants the best for me, and I think she realizes this is probably the best for me as long as I put the work in.”