SDSU Baseball Season Preview

Shaun Montoya rounds the bases after a homerun. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

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SDSU sings the fight song after defeating UNLV last year. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

There is a time-tested winning formula in college athletics.

Championships are won by rosters filled with experienced upperclassmen at key positions complemented by high-ceiling underclassmen around them.

Coaches around the country aim to create this dynamic in their locker rooms. With the transfer portal and NIL opportunities, methods for getting there are in flux.

Last season, LSU famously used NIL to land four players on the Preseason Gold Spikes Award watch list. The Tigers super team won a national championship this past June.

SDSU gathers in the outfield. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

SDSU head baseball coach Shaun Cole and his staff have chosen a more conventional path. Their focus is on player development.

Only 12 upperclassmen (three seniors and nine juniors) are on the 2024 Aztecs. Cole brought in 19 freshmen this season and expects another large class next year. Seven sophomores will don the Red and Black. All totaled, 26 of the 38 players on Cole’s roster are underclassmen.

Cole’s approach has an eye to 2026 and 2027 when the current freshmen are juniors and seniors. If the staff skillfully develops the underclassmen now, SDSU will have the winning formula to compete for a trip to the College World Series.

“The pitching staff has been working with coach Cole for a little while now,” Jonny Guzman explained on Episode 118 of The SDSU Podcast. “Seeing him transition to that head coach role, he still treats everyone the same. It’s nice to see that there’s not a huge shift in personality moving from pitching coach to head coach. Overall, as a head coach, it’s been great. Definitely, different this year as opposed to the last few years.”

Cole’s method should not be confused with rebuilds seen in professional sports, where younger players take their lumps early to win later. Eligibility rules prevent that approach in college athletics.

Program momentum also factors into the conversation. Even if SDSU’s player development goes better than anticipated, transfers will be needed to bolster the roster. If the Aztecs have subpar seasons in 2024 and 2025, it will make attracting incoming transfers and keeping their own athletes from leaving harder.

Aiding the Aztecs as they build from the high school ranks is the reality of the current state of Mountain West baseball. Last year, the MW ranked 19th out of 31 conferences in America after finishing 68-88 in non-conference contests. San Jose State (31-27) had the highest RPI at 105, followed by Air Force (28-31) at 140, SDSU (24-29) at 149, Fresno State (30-27) at 178, UNLV (21-30) at 211, Nevada (20-33) at 221, and New Mexico (25-24) at 237.

Last year, the lack of a dominant team allowed SDSU to claim its first regular season championship since 2004 despite a 6-18 non-conference record. The Aztecs were co-champs with SJSU. Even with significant departures from 2023, a run at another title is the expectation for 2024.

The MW preseason poll ranked the Aztecs fourth behind SJSU, Fresno, and AFA. The trio at the top all received first-place votes and are expected to be the class of the conference. SDSU’s positioning shows that Cole’s squad is mostly unknown.

The Aztecs have had a combined 42-67 record the past two seasons. The importance of 2024 in reversing that trend and building off a conference title in 2023 cannot be overstated if the program is to reach the heights Cole is aiming for.

Beginning this Friday at 5 pm against Portland at Tony Gwynn Stadium, the team will begin its quest to lay the foundation for the Shaun Cole era at SDSU.

“Coach Cole has done a great job teaching me and Irv(in Weems) how to be a leader and how to show the younger guys the ropes of what a winning team would look like,” OF Shaun Montoya said on the same podcast episode. “

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If SDSU is to prove prognosticators wrong by challenging for a conference title, it will be on the strength of its pitching. The Aztecs have the best starting staff in the Mountain West. If the expected growth occurs at the top of the rotation, SDSU’s starters could be the envy of the West Coast.

Cole said he believes in progressions for his pitchers. Last year, Chris Canada and Omar Serrano took the mound as the Saturday and Sunday starters, respectively. They will move up one spot and be the Friday and Saturday guys in the rotations. Four pitchers were named to the preseason all-conference team. Canada and Serrano took two of those spots.

Omar Serrano pitches against UConn last year.

Despite both having ERAs above five, there is hope for significant steps forward in 2024. Health permitting, both should reach the 40 appearances plateau in their careers. When Canada and Serrano are at their best, they are nearly unhittable. Finding consistency will be key this season.

“I talk to coach Cole a lot about being efficient,” Serrano explained. “Have efficient innings. I throw all my pitches with confidence. (Giving up) extra-base hits come; it’s baseball. In terms of this year coming up, I’m building off last year. I had good numbers. I started a lot of games. Hopefully, I get a lot of opportunities to go out there and give us a chance to win. Then, hopefully, lead us into the playoffs.”

Behind the top two starters is Xavier Cardenas. Hordes of scouts will flock to see every start by the 6-foot-6, 225-pound starter because he could be the top pick in the 2025 MLB draft. Cole said he has pitched well enough this off-season to be the Friday night starter, but closing a weekend series instead of starting it has advantages for a young hurler with only 11 career appearances to date.

“I love X,” Guzman said. “We’ve gotten a chance to get a little bit closer just this past offseason. Just seeing his work ethic behind the scenes is honestly something cool to watch. Just how seriously he takes his dry reps. How he takes care of his body off the field. Me and him have a lot of conversations about diet (and) ways we can keep ourselves healthy away from the baseball field. Seeing the dedication he has to make himself a great athlete and a great pitcher at that, it’s really grown a lot. This year, I’m really excited to see what he has in store for us. I think he’s going to be helping us out a lot.”

Cole said this year’s team has more pitching depth than last year but needs to replace a pair of key arms from the 2023 bullpen. Early on, expect to see a closer by committee to allow Cole to find his seventh, eighth, and ninth-inning specialists.

Guzman should be among the pitchers called upon in high-leverage situations. Perfect Game ranked RHP Jadon Bercovich the No. 3 senior in all of college baseball. Transfer Jacob Riordan made eleven starts last year for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. They are among the early favorites to fill the rest of the roles for the pitching staff this season.


Even with Cole Carrigg, Pancho Ruiz, and TJ Fondtain, the Aztecs finished near the bottom of the country in most offensive categories. Despite that core from the 2023 lineup departing to play professional baseball, the offense might be poised for a rebound year under new hitting coach Julius McDougal (J-Mac).

“Coach J-Mac emphasizes being more aggressive with runners in scoring position, especially (with pitches) in the zone,” Weems said when asked about McDougal’s hitting philosophy. “So, if (the pitcher) hangs that cookie, we’re able to bang it. If he tees it, take it up the middle. Just stay as simple as can be.”

Evan Sipe sacrifice bunts last year. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

Weems and Shaun Montoya should form a potent duo at the top of the order for the Aztecs. Injuries prevented Weems from building on 2022 when he was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year. Now fully healthy, Weems will look to become one of the more exciting players to watch in the conference.

Montoya’s growth since stepping on campus suggests 2024 could be a monster year for the fleet-footed outfielder. A solid freshman season (.284, 17 runs, .321 SLG%) turned into a second-team all-conference sophomore season (.316, 36 runs, .487 SLG%). SDSU will be counting on Montoya to knock more runners in while continuing to set the table for those behind him.

“Something I had done was take weights seriously,” Montoya said when asked about his increase in the power numbers. “Other than that, Maxwell Foxcroft and J-Mac on the hitting side have been good to me, ‘Hey, stick to your approach. Know who you are.’ We’re going to build from there. There’s always room for improvement.”

SS Xavier Gonzalez in his second season with the program should make strides at the plate. He hit a solid .247 last year as he adjusted to DI baseball after transferring in from Southwestern College. With a year under his belt, expect Gonzalez’ average to increase. He also has a terrific frame, so his slugging percentage should see a sizable jump as well.

Behind that big three, Tino Bethancourt and Brady Lavoie would figure to be next in line for the Aztecs. Lavoie transferred from NC State last year, but his opportunities were limited. Bethancourt had a sophomore slump of sorts and looks to bounce back.

For SDSU to make significant offensive improvements, the underclassmen will have to step up and produce early. True freshman OF Jake Jackson has the size and athleticism to be a player. Jackson is one of a handful of new Aztecs who offer promise as prospects but whose fit in 2024 is uncertain.


SDSU’s recipe for success is clear. Great pitching coupled with an opportune offense should have the Aztecs in most games. Key to that formula is the ability to play good defense.

Xavier Gonzalez leaves the diamond after a putout. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

Weems, Montoya, and Jackson can all cover ground in the outfield. Each is capable of playing center field. SDSU’s pitching should benefit from that trio navigating the large outfields in the Mountain West.

Gonzalez will anchor the infield and should be one of the better shortstops defensively in college baseball. David Whittle and Evan Sipe will form a platoon behind the plate, with Sipe catching Friday and Saturday and Whittle on Sunday and midweek. Bethancourt, Lavoie, and Cade Martinez are the other returners.

“I learned from Andy Lopez at Arizona to keep the game simple,” Cole said an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “Play catch on defense, put the ball in play on offense, and throw strikes on the mound, and usually good things work out. So we’re just seeking balance all the way across the board, behind the dish, on the dirt and in the outfield and just play catch. Don’t miss your cuts, don’t make mistakes basically. So those are the things that we are preaching right now, and we’ve been working on.”


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