Barely 5-foot-7, junior Ryan Xepoleas seems even shorter when he digs into the left-hand batter’s box with his knees bent to start off each at-bat.
Though he bats first in the lineup for GW (7-13) and has ignited the Colonials’ offense so far this season, “Xepo” wasn’t always picked first. He didn’t receive any offers from a Division I or II program out of high school.
So, Xepoleas (pronounced ex-fol-e-us) played junior college baseball for two years back home in northern California at Santa Rosa Junior College, before GW finally recruited him to play center field in the middle of his sophomore season.
He’s now one of only two Colonials to come from a junior college.
“You know, I’m a realist and I knew there were guys better than me,” he said. “I knew that my time would come and I just had to work at it.”
In his first season at GW, the leadoff hitter is a modest – but vocal – leader of the team, which is off to a strong start, batting .299 with seven RBIs and the second-most runs scored (10) and total bases (28).
Xepoleas worked on his strength and speed after transitioning to the outfield in high school, but the work didn’t earn him any high-profile college offers. He turned to junior college ball instead, playing a couple years under well-regarded coach Damon Neidlinger, who has helped over 60 of his players reach the Division I level.
“He does not compare himself to others or look to out-perform his teammates,” Neidlinger said. “He wants to be the best he can be and he wants his teammates to be best they can be. His attitude promotes and is responsible for unifying a team.”
Head coach Gregg Ritchie saw those leadership qualities when Xepoleas first stepped into his office in December 2012. After the meeting, Ritchie and his staff saw an extremely mature player who had an internal drive, an “x-factor.”
“The other day he jumped out and called the team together,” Ritchie said. “We ended up coming back and winning both of those games. I’m not saying it’s all because of him, but it’s definitely partly because of his leadership.”
He’s also impressed the program with leadership off the field.
Xepoleas has helped lead a partnership with the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, designed to provide high-quality after-school mentorship for young boys and girls. Ritchie called him a “giver” who is serving the team at a “higher purpose than just himself.”
Out on the diamond, though, he can take on a different demeanor.
Xepoleas plays with grit like that of one of his favorite players: the Boston Red Sox second baseman, 5-foot-8 Dustin Pedroia.
“He’s a real small guy, but he’s playing in the big leagues. That’s always something people pick at and it’s just something to fuel the fire,” Xepoleas said.
Against Saint Joseph’s last week, with his team threatened to be swept in their conference home opener and his parents in the stands, Xepoleas was 0-3 going up for what would be his final at bat. Ritchie saw him with his head down and told him that he was going to get that big hit to help the team.
In the bottom of the seventh, Xepoleas drove in the go-ahead run on a seven-pitch at bat after falling behind in the count, no balls, two strikes. GW went on to win the game 4-3.
“I would never imagine that he could raise his voice like that, pull guys together or be that kind of Tasmanian Devil’ when you meet him out on the concourse or on campus, because he’s humble,” Ritchie said. “He’s the guy that you would say, ‘Wow, what a terror on the field.'”