When the 2020 college baseball season shut down, Durango’s Trevor Candelaria and Tyler Ruetschle returned home. And with gyms closed and summer seasons called off, the two found any field they could to sharpen their skills.
With Ruetschle on the mound and Candelaria standing in the batter’s box, the NCAA Division I talents solidified their love of the game and returned to their respective universities with improved skills and renewed spirit.
“Baseball can be taken away from you at any moment. Any at-bat can be your last,” Candelaria said. “For us, it’s about being grateful to be out there with that perspective and having fun. It’s so easy to lose sight of that when you go through stretches where you don’t get hits for a few games or you misplay a ball in the field. It can be easy to get down, but this is a game, and we are going to school to play a game we love. How many people get to do that?”
Not only have Candelaria and Ruetschle earned the chance to return to the field. They’ve done it at an award-winning level within their respective conferences.
“Trevor goes out the opening weekend and wins his conference player of the week, and then I win my conference player of the week that weekend, too,” Ruetschle said. “It was pretty special.”
Candelaria, son of Beth and Jim Candelaria, is a junior at Davidson College. The Wildcats play in the Atlantic 10 conference and currently have a 6-8 overall record after a 9-4 win Wednesday night against No. 16 South Carolina, a game in which Candelaria blasted his fourth home run of the season.
“Playing college baseball at this level is everything you dream of,” Candelaria said. “To get a win against a ranked team like South Carolina, that’s a tough feeling to beat, and we needed that as a team.”
Candelaria’s A10 Player of the Week award came after he hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning of a 16-14 win against Toledo. Earlier in the game, he had robbed Toledo of a home run with a sensational catch in right field.
“It’s nice to receive some recognition, but just being out on the baseball field has been so nice for me,” Candelaria said. “Couple an injury I had with the pandemic canceling the season last year and not knowing if we’d have a season this year, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.”
Ruetschle, son of Anne Ruetschle, is a junior pitcher at Ball State (7-7) in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). He opened the season with 5 2/3 shutout innings against preseason No. 22 Arizona. In that win, Ruetschle struck out nine and allowed only three hits and two walks on the way to a 5-2 victory, and that earned him the MAC Pitcher of the Week award.
Two days earlier, Arizona had beat Ball State 3-0 with Farmington’s Chase Silseth on the mound for the Wildcats. He had a near mirror image outing in 5 2/3 innings, as he struck out seven and also gave up three hits and two walks. Silseth is now 3-0 on the season with a 5.70 earned-run average after one bad outing against Oklahoma.
“We took two in that series with nationally-ranked Arizona, and it was great for me to be able to get a win there,” Ruetschle said. “It was fun playing against a good friend in (Silseth).”
Candelaria’s comebackThe two players have taken different routes to get to where they are. Candelaria, left Durango High School after a strong freshman season in 2015. He would enroll at Montverde Academy, a private college preparatory school in Florida where he would play baseball year-round and blossom into a top-100 Division I outfield prospect. As a senior in 2018, he signed with Davidson College in North Carolina right out of high school.
But Candelaria’s freshman season was marred by a shoulder injury he kept mostly private. He hit for a .235 average with five home runs, 33 runs batted in and 23 runs scored. He would undergo shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing arm, which he attributed to overuse throwing the baseball 360 or more days per year. It was the kind of injury that can end a pitcher’s career, but Candelaria has bounced back as a position player and regained his 95 mph velocity throwing from the outfield.
Davidson played 11 games before the 2020 season was shutdown. But already this season, Candelaria has started 13 games in right field and boasts a .311 batting average to go with four homers, nine RBIs and 15 runs scored. He also has six doubles.
“This year, I am very grateful to be healthy, and it’s been nice to experience a season after all the craziness of the pandemic,” Candelaria said. “My freshman year, it was tough showing up day 1 knowing I had an arm injury. My arm wasn’t what it had been in high school coming in, but I didn’t know to what extent it was hurt. To make it through that year, get to the summer and get surgery, it was a long rehab process, longer than I expected it to be. Getting through that was extremely tough physically and mentally, but I think it happened for a reason and I’m better because of it and just grateful now I’m healthy and able to play the way I would like.”
Not only is Candelaria getting it done at the plate, he’s shined in the outfield and once again has dreams of playing professional ball.
“Trevor has played really well and he’s done it offensively and defensively for us,” Davidson coach Rucker Taylor said. “He’s found some comfort at the plate and has made several highlight plays in the field. He’s a great teammate and has a high care level for his performance and this program’s play. I think the game has slowed down a little for him and he’s playing within himself. His skill level is high, and it’s awesome to see him having fun playing the game.”
Different pathRuetschle took the junior college route to Division I after he graduated from Durango High School in 2017. He signed with Lamar Community College and spent two seasons with the Runnin’ Lopes. He had a 9-5 record with a 4.32 ERA. He struck out 131 batters ad walked 54 and gave up 69 hits.
His junior college performance earned him a place at Ball State, where he went 1-0 and recorded a save in six appearances in 2020 before the season was shut down.
“It’s interesting to look at how me and Trevor took these different paths to Division I. He went out of high school, and I went to junior college and made it after that,” Ruetschle said. “It’s cool when we come home together in the summer or Christmas and get reminded of where we came from and how we got to where we are. It helps me appreciate where we’re both at right now.”
Already this year, Ruetschle has a 1-2 record with a stout 3.60 ERA with 19 strikeouts to eight walks and 15 hits allowed.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty good place right now,” Ruetschle said. “As a team, we are trying to go out there and win a MAC championship this year. Personally, I want to do anything I can to go out and help the team. Hopefully, I can slot into a starting role and cement that role within the team to help us win. I think I’ve put myself in a good position to do that so far this season.”
Dreams of OmahaBoth players hope to make a run once conference play begins in April. They aim to chase conference titles with eyes on making a regional round of the College World Series and advancing to super regionals and beyond.
And they hope their journey inspires more young baseball players in Durango chase their Division I baseball dream.
“I always think back to Little League playing with (Ruetschle) and Gavin Mestas, who is still playing college baseball, and I look back and reflect,” Candelaria said. “Who would have thought that team would have two Division I guys contribution to two pretty good schools? To see the progression of where we were as kids in Durango with no idea about the world outside of Durango to where we are now, it’s pretty special. I hope I can do whatever I can to see more kids from Durango and our corner of the world get a chance to play Division I baseball.”