Cal State East Bay outfielder Kelly Starnes is the kind of guy coaches root for because he works hard and puts the team first.

He also produces. Pioneers coach Bob Ralston describes Starnes, his top hitter, as the best defensive center fielder in the California Collegiate Athletic Association.

"He is doing great," Ralston said. "He is our leadoff hitter and has been the driving force in our winning 12 of the last 14 games. He has a chance to be the league MVP and newcomer of the year in our conference."

Consider the story Concord High football coach Brian Hamilton enjoys sharing about Starnes.

In the 2010 North Coast Section Division II championship game at O.co Coliseum, Starnes, then one of the top-producing wideouts in the state, suffered an ACL injury late in the third quarter playing defense.

After borrowing a lineman's knee brace, Starnes somehow returned to the game and made three more catches in a dramatic 40-37 win over Rancho Cotate-Rohnert Park, Concord's first section football championship. Starnes had eight receptions for 159 yards and three touchdowns in the game.

After he suffered the injury, Starnes heard Concord fans chanting his name, wanting him to return. His comeback performance was the stuff of local legend.


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"I tried to get up, and my body, my leg just gave out," Starnes recalled of his predicament. "I didn't know what was wrong. The trainer came over and basically went through his whole progression. I told him, 'I'm fine.' But every time I would get up, it wasn't sturdy.

"I basically told him, 'Put a knee brace on or something,' because I just wanted to finish the game. It was my senior year. I didn't want to be on the sideline watching my team, especially when the game was that close."

Football heroics aside, Starnes has long had baseball in his blood. The two-sport star went on to bat .400 with 34 hits as a Concord senior. Then at Los Medanos College, he was named first-team All-Bay Valley Conference in consecutive seasons. He was selected in the 40th round by the Minnesota Twins in the 2013 MLB draft.

Today, Starnes has a .335 batting average, 54 hits and 32 runs scored, and is ranked fourth in the CCAA with four homers. Starnes, who has started in all 44 Pioneers' games, said he's getting in the "groove" after a slow start.

"Moving to leadoff helped me a lot, because there's so much stuff you can branch from hitting leadoff," he said. "You can be aggressive at times, and you can use your speed to get on. I can do a lot more stuff. They can't really pitch around you. If you get the leadoff guy on, that's a big inning usually."

The Pioneers (27-17, 21-15 CCAA) are ranked sixth in the NCAA Division 2, with one weekend left. The top six teams will play in the West Regionals, with the winner going to the World Series. They have a four-game series at San Francisco State on Friday and Saturday.

With a pro baseball career possibly in his future, Starnes is keeping his focus on what's right in front of him.

"My goal is to hopefully get a sweep of this next series," he said. "I don't try to look too far into it with the (MLB draft) and all that kind of stuff coming up. I can't control what they think and how they think, I can only play the game, and whatever happens, happens."

Starnes caught the football fever in high school because all his friends were playing. Things kind of took off from there.

"It was literally like a family," he said of the football experience. "We hung out together all the time. It was probably the closest team that I've ever been a part of."

It all culminated at O.co Coliseum, when Starnes pulled himself up from the turf and kept on fighting.

"That was a great game. It was amazing how we pulled it out," he recalled.

PIONEERS HONORED: Cal State East Bay softball player Chelsie Kakela was named the CCAA Player of the Week. She went 6 for 10 with four homers and seven RBIs as the Pioneers earned their first series win over Chico State since joining the CCAA in 2010. Pioneers baseball third baseman Ryan Kochan (California, Diablo Valley) was also CCAA Player of the Week. He helped the Pioneers to a sweep of visiting Cal State Los Angeles, batting a combined .467 and playing strong defense.

Contact Matt Schwab at mschwab@bayareanewsgroup.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/schwab_matt.