Jason Carlson first saw Stephen Espinoza play at a Hancock College baseball camp about six years ago.
"It's hard to say a kid at 12 years old has 'it', but by then he already had that kind of 'it factor,'" Carlson said Thursday.
Carlson spoke of Espinoza at a signing ceremony in Lompoc. Espinoza, the standout Lompoc High pitcher and infielder, was there to sign his national letter of intent with New Mexico State, a Division I program and member of the Western Athletic Conference.
Carlson was a coach at Hancock when he first saw Espinoza play years ago. Now he's Lompoc High's head coach.
"We're hoping Stephen goes in there and competes right off the bat," Carlson said of Espinoza playing with the Aggies.
Several dozen friends, family members and current and former coaches and teammates gathered at Dan Bodary Field Thursday in Lompoc for the signing ceremony, with attendees wearing masks and mostly adhering to social distancing guidelines.
"It's mind blowing to have all these people here. They've been with me, by my side, for years now, from tee ball and Little League," Espinoza said. "My coaches growing up, they've been around a long time and to see them here supporting me... it's insane."
Espinoza will play shortstop for the Braves in the spring of 2021. Carlson said he's also one of the Braves' top starting pitchers but will likely be used as a closer this year. Espinoza may play third base at New Mexico State.
"From the moment I first started talking to them, the recruiting coordinator had a lot to say about their head coach (Mike Kirby) and he had a bond with his players that I was looking for in a college," Espinoza said. "We talked on the phone for hours and he'd tell me he had his players over for dinner, they had the game on and were playing cornhole, stuff like that. It's just the environment I was looking for."
The Aggies went 38-17 in 2019 and were 12-4 when the 2020 season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Infielder Nick Gonzales was drafted seventh overall out of NMSU by the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this year.
"I'm confident in the school and coaches. I know for a fact that their coaching staff will be able to help me get to the next level," Espinoza said. "I had talked to a few other schools, but this one definitely caught my eye."
Espinoza said he is already focusing on how to contribute to the Aggies when he arrives in Las Cruces.
"I definitely want to make an impact on the defensive side, I know that for sure, and I want to be a great teammate," he said. But Espinoza is also focused on closing out his career as a Lompoc Brave.
"I'm excited for my senior season," Espinoza said. "We did lose a couple guys from last year and it's heartbreaking, honestly, they didn't get to have their senior seasons. I'm ready and I think we've got a good thing going. I think we'll go far."
At Thursday's signing ceremony, Carlson spoke about the experience of coaching Espinoza, who then signed his letter of intent, joined by his parents Saul and Esther and brothers Adrian and Nick.
"I'm very emotional. It was very hard today thinking about him signing, but I'm so excited to see his dreams come true," Esther Espinoza said. "Even his tee ball coach came out and so many of our friends came out. Not everyone was able to be here due to COVID, but it's one beautiful thing that happened in 2020 with everything that's been bad about this year. It's been tough, but we're happy to have this."
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