Westmont baseball team has become more victorious, but its head coach knows the legacy goes beyond numbers
When Westmont head coach Robert Ruiz took over the baseball program in June 2009, he took over a program that historically was 220 games under .500.
Westmont’s Russ Carr Field was still being renovated following damage from the Tea Fire, so when Ruiz and his longtime friend-turned-pitching coach Tony Cougoule first stepped on Russ Carr, it was nothing but dirt.
Looking at a field without grass and a history book with room to grow, Ruiz refused to see it as anything but an endless chance of opportunity.
“We’re not going to make excuses for all the things we don’t have,” said Ruiz in June 2009. “We’re going to be grateful for what we do have and become great with it.”
Ruiz reflected on the progress of his program during an interview from February 2020, in which he said, “We put our heads down and put the work in, then four or five years down the road we hit that tipping point. From there, we started winning games and accomplishing things that had never been accomplished before.”
For Ruiz and company, the never-before-seen accomplishments by Westmont baseball players would go far beyond the walls of Russ Carr field.
In 2012, Westmont went to the GSAC tournament for the first time, and in 2014, the team won the GSAC tournament for the first time. Then, in 2015, the Warriors set a new wins record, going 41-17, and becoming the first team in program history to win multiple games during the NAIA Opening Round.
On May 13, 2015, the Warriors were one loss from elimination during the opening round. That day, left-hander Andrew Vasquez fired seven innings of one-run ball while striking out 13 in a winning effort, buying the club one more day in the postseason.
Vasquez, a senior transfer from UCSB, posted a record of 7-1 during 2015. The southpaw struck-out 124 batters that season, the third-most in program history, while posting an ERA of 3.06 in 85.1 innings of work.
Vasquez was then drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 32nd round of the MLB June Amateur draft, and in September 2018, he made his major league debut for the ball club.
“I was down and out in my baseball career and I was blessed with an opportunity at Westmont,” reflected Vasquez. “Coach Ruiz and coach Cougoule welcomed me into the Westmont family and gave me another baseball life.”
Vasquez pitched in 10 big league games for the Twins from 2018 to 2019, and since then had not stepped foot on a major league mound again until recently. Five days after being acquired in a minor league deal, Vasquez took the mound for the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco.
Vasquez pitched twice over the three-game series between the two rivals competing for first place. The lefty threw two-thirds of an inning on Friday, before firing a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Sunday night. Vazquez ultimately struck out three Giants in an inning and two-thirds over the weekend.
“After a rough 2019, I was struggling to get back to the big leagues,” said Vasquez, “but thinking back on that initial second chance from Westmont, I decided I wasn’t ever going to give up again. It’s hard to express everything that happened along the way, but a lot of it goes back to Westmont giving me that first second chance, and it was the reason I decided to come back to baseball.”
“It has been so fulfilling to watch Andrew’s career unfold,” said Ruiz. “From being on the brink of his baseball career ending in college, to climbing the ranks of minor league baseball into the big leagues, it has been a remarkable story to follow.”
Another member of the 2015 Westmont baseball team was a freshman by the name of Michael Stefanic. The Boise native immediately turned heads that season, as he was named to the All-GSAC team and was awarded a GSAC Gold Glove at second base. Stefanic hit .337 and collected 63 hits in 2015. The second baseman would collect 212 more hits over the next three seasons, to finish atop the program-record list with 275.
“Mike embodies everything gritty in the game of baseball,” noted Ruiz. “He is a tough out at the plate, an intuitive defender and he is the same guy every day.”
After graduating in 2018, Stefanic remained hopeful he would hear his name called during the June draft. However, the call never came, and Stefanic returned home and began contemplating the steps to getting a normal job.
Before hanging up the spikes for good, Stefanic displayed that vintage grit that became his calling-card during college and made a tape of himself playing. He then sent the tape to members of all 30 MLB teams.
Weeks later, the Westmont graduate received a call from then-Angels Director of Baseball Development Mike Gallego, who had seen the tape Stefanic sent out.
In an article by The Athletic that highlights Stefanic’s journey, Gallego says, “To be honest with you, we were basically looking for some bodies at the time. And we were honest with him. When he got into town, we basically told him, ‘we don’t know long this is going to last’.”
Stefanic was signed in July 2018. That year in Rookie Ball, he hit .351. The next year in Low-A he hit .333. After COVID-19 canceled the minor league season in 2020, Stefanic returned in 2021 to hit .345 in Double-A. Currently, he is hitting .341 for the Salt Lake City Bees, the Angels Triple-A affiliate.
To many, Stefanic is one overdue call away from being a major leaguer.
“He has a million people in his corner because he did things and treated people the right way,” expressed Ruiz. “I am hopeful that he gets an opportunity in the big leagues because his intangibles are incredibly valuable, though hard to measure. It sure is difficult to argue with the numbers he has put up. We remain grateful for his contributions and legacy left on our program.”
When Stefanic graduated from Westmont in 2018, right-hander Bailey Reid was a sophomore on the team with just 25.1 innings under his belt. Reid had originally tried out as a third baseman at a Westmont prospect camp, before arriving on campus in the fall of 2016.
After watching Reid field grounders and throw across the diamond, coach Cougoule approached Ruiz as he continued to study the youngster.
“That kid is never going to play third base for us, but he is going to throw 95 miles an hour for us someday,” Cougoule told him.
In 2019 and 2020, Reid did not allow a single earned run in 24 appearances out of the Westmont bullpen. Reid developed into one of the most dominant bullpen arms in program history, in large part due to the mentorship of Cougoule. With hopes to maximize potential, Cougoule utilized methods from the now-popular Driveline Baseball program, years before the practice took the big-league level by storm.
Cougoule’s ability to develop talent at Westmont not only helped men such as Vasquez and Reid, but it also opened the door for him to get hired to coach professionally. In early 2020, Cougoule left Westmont after 10 years, after being offered a job to become a pitching coach in the Chicago Cubs organization.
“In the fall of 2019 I got a message on Twitter from a person in the Cubs organization,” said Cougoule. “He asked if wanted to discuss my future in baseball, and he talked to me about their philosophy and how it coincided with things I was working on. It happened to be the director of pitching for the Cubs and next thing I knew, I got a formal offer to become a minor league pitching coach for the Cubs.”
This year, in his first full minor league season, Cougoule has served as the pitching coach for the South Bend Cubs, the High-A affiliate of the organization.
“I have had some pretty rare opportunities in this game,” said Cougoule. “Being able to build a program with a childhood friend and teammate for 11 years at Westmont was an unbelievable experience. Now in the present, it has been a great year for Westmont baseball at the professional level.”
Recently the year got even greater.
After limiting batters to just six hits in his final 22 innings of collegiate baseball, Reid signed a contract with who else but the Chicago Cubs in 2020. After being unable to compete last season, and beginning 2021 in Low-A, Reid was called up to South Bend this past week, where was reunited with Cougoule once again.
“From recruiting a player at age 16, and seeing him develop through college,” began Cougoule, “to now being in the same dugout in professional ball is surreal. Seeing his growth and getting to once again interact on a daily basis has been extremely rewarding.”
“Getting to link up with Cougoule again has been pretty cool,” said Reid. “It’s almost like you don’t skip a beat after how long we were in uniform together at Westmont, and getting to do it again at this level is something I will always remember.”
Since 2010, the Warriors are 84 games above .500, and they have won two GSAC Championships. While the on-the-field success has grown to new heights, Ruiz knows the legacy of the program goes beyond the numbers.
“At the end of the day, our program stands for a lot more than total draft picks or trophies,” said Ruiz, now the winningest coach in program history, “but there is something so rewarding in seeing high quality people like Andrew, Mike and Bailey come out of our program and have success at the highest levels of our game.
“Ultimately, we know that they embody the Warrior way. We trust that they will be a positive influence on and off the field with their teams, their communities and families. Westmont baseball is fortunate to have them representing our program as they continue to build their careers.”
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.