Former Ventura County Pirates RHP Jason Starrels’ road to achieving his dream of seeing game action for USC baseball was anything but smooth.
“It was definitely a long, long road, but I’m definitely glad I got there,” Starrels said. “I kinda always knew I’d get there.”
Starrels began targeting USC baseball starting in his sophomore year of high school, but by the time he graduated, he had switched his main focus to Tulane University, where his sister attended school.
Tulane’s coach, however, showed a lack of interest in what Starrels had to offer. At 5’10” 185lbs, Starrels does not have an overpowering fastball, and instead relies on a variety of offspeed pitches to fool hitters at the plate.
“That coach . . . wanted guys throwing at least 90-92MPH,” Starrels said.
When the dust settled on conversations with Tulane, Starrels found himself sitting in the classrooms of Santa Monica College starting the 2016-2017 academic year. He had a spring academic transfer lined up for Tulane, but switched his sights back to USC.
“I was talking to my parents and we were like, you know what, I’d be happier as a student at USC, not even as an athlete, but just as a student I’d be happier.” Starrels said.
After those discussions with his parents, Starrels set out on a new goal to transfer to USC academically and then try to walk on at USC.
There was yet another kink in his plans, however, as it would be impossible for Starrels to even attempt to make the USC baseball team during his first semester there.
“I was at Santa Monica and their semester goes pretty late,” Starrels said. “So, all USC could give me was a spring transfer.”
USC did offer to push the transfer earlier to the Fall semester if the USC baseball coach at the time, Dan Hubbs, would reach out to them and vouch for Starrels. Once again, however, a Division 1 head coach expressed a lack of interest in Starrels talents.
Starrels made the spring transfer, which meant he missed USC’s fall workouts. As a result, he attended USC for a full semester, during the college baseball season, before he even had a chance to tryout for the team.
Even getting an opportunity to tryout was far from a guarantee. In the meantime, Starrels decided to play for the Ventura County Pirates, as he did the previous summer as a member of the Buccaneers, which is the organization's second team. This time around, General Manager George Vranau placed Jason on the pitching staff of the Pirates, the number one team, and eventual Sunset Baseball League Champions for 2019.
As fate would have it, during the course of the summer Jason Gill would be hired away from Loyola Marymount University, to become the new head coach at USC. Gill and the rest of USC's new coaching staff would prove more receptive to the suggestion of giving Starrels a try out.
"[Vranau] asked me in the summer, 'do you want me to call them (USC)? I know some of the coaches (of the new coaching staff)' and I was like 'yeah that would be great," Starrels said. "So, he definitely helped out."
Starrels finally got his chance to tryout for USC and Coach Gill in the Fall of 2019. He would now have to prove himself in a single tryout to yet another Division 1 head coach, knowing that two had already passed up on him.
“[Tryouts] are intimidating and nerve wracking, but over the years of seeing guys with clipboards and radar guns, you kinda get used to it and you’re kinda able to work through it,” Starrels said.
Starrels and five other walk-ons made a good enough impression to make the Fall roster, but that achievement is no guarantee that any of them would see action in the spring, as additional roster cuts would be made just prior to the start of the Spring season.
After working the entire Fall uncertain of whether he would make the team, Starrels and his five walk-on teammates had coaches’ meetings in which they were told whether or not they made the Spring roster. Starrels was the last of the five to have his meeting.
He was one of two walk-ons to make the Spring roster. It appeared his dream of pitching in a game for USC baseball was about to be fulfilled. However, life had other plans. Just 15 games into the Spring, before Starrels had entered a game, the season was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Last season was really tough, Starrels said.”
It was more than 11 months before USC started playing games again. Then, in late February 2021, Starrels’ dream finally came true in extra-innings at LMU. The pitching coach told him to go warm up, and that he would be pitching the next inning.
“It all happened really quickly, Starrels said. “I felt really good warming up, I felt the adrenaline pumping in all the right ways.”
Interestingly though, Starrels doesn’t describe his first outing as a defining or even emotionally significant moment. Throughout his time at USC, he came to realize that he had already achieved what was important to him, even before taking the mound in a regular-season game.
“It didn’t really feel different,” Starrels said.
Part of the reason why his Division 1 debut didn’t feel particularly different is because Starrels has an incredible sense of perspective, perhaps because of the trials of his journey. Starrels cares most about helping the team. He often runs baseballs out to umpires between innings, or plays catch to warm up another pitcher. Regardless of what he’s doing, however, Starrels is always happy. The kid flat out loves to be involved in baseball, which is exactly what he plans on doing at USC for the foreseeable future.
“I love being able to go to the field and put on that uniform, even if I’m just sitting in the bullpen,” Starrels said. “Obviously I want to pitch, but I honestly want to see the team win even more.”