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2014 Foothill League baseball preview

Posted: March 18, 2014 10:43 p.m.
Updated: March 18, 2014 10:43 p.m.

West Ranch junior Jagger Rusconi comes into this season as a top contender for Foothill League Player of the Year.

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Last year showed that when the Foothill League is so tight, anything can happen.

Canyon pulled off the unexpected and shared a Foothill League title with West Ranch.

Hart missed the postseason.

As did Saugus.

Golden Valley won just two games last season and one of them was against perennial playoff team Valencia.

Every season there’s a difference maker, especially when the race is so tight.

This year it might not be what teams have, but what they don’t have.

The Foothill League team that hides its holes the best could be standing on top at the end of the day.

Last year, Canyon rode confidence and clutch play, despite not being tight defensively.

West Ranch hid its lack of starting pitching depth and found a way.

Hart couldn’t win most of the close ones.

Valencia didn’t back up its fine pitching with consistent offense.

Saugus was too banged up.

Golden Valley had far too many holes to compete.

So who has the answer this year?

The majority says its Hart because offensive and pitching depth should go a long way.

But Valencia, Saugus, West Ranch and Canyon all have their own replies.

Canyon

The Cowboys won’t sneak up on anybody like they did last year when they won their first Foothill League title since 2002.

They’re confident, battle-tested and return some significant members from last year’s team.

“Last year was such an exciting year in so many ways,” said Canyon head coach Adam Schulhofer. “I hope we have the same mind-set, we go out each day with something to prove.”

Yes, they lost the Player of the Year Max Weinstein to graduation and his contributions were much more than what appears on a stat sheet.

But the Cowboys have a slew of guys who were factors last year, beginning with varsity veteran outfielder Cole Mears, pitcher/catcher Justin Stark (who returns to the mound after focusing just on catching last season), left-hander Blake Leidholdt, infielder Chris Jenkins and pitcher Jon Dicey.

“We have more arms than innings available,” Schulhofer said.

The Cowboys have a wide mix of youth and seniors that will not only help the team this year, but years after.

Freshman third baseman Daniel Cervantes has been lauded by Schulhofer, but has also hit early.

West Ranch

The Wildcats have a very big two in junior shortstop Jagger Rusconi and senior pitcher Jake Bird.

Rusconi, who in his first two seasons has shown an advanced ability to hit for contact with power spliced in, is a clear Player of the Year candidate.

The hard-throwing Bird is finally putting it all together thanks to a command of four pitches, including a low-90s fastball.

Rusconi’s backup offensively is 6-foot-6-inch first baseman Davis LeBarron, healthy for the first time after a series of ankle surgeries.

But West Ranch, like Saugus, has a lot of unproven commodities on the offensive side.

So the Wildcats will have to get creative.

“No doubt we’ll have to steal bases, hit and run and do all the bunts to be successful,” said West Ranch head coach Casey Burrill. “We are not the Yankees. We have to manufacture runs.”

Bird recently suffered a hamstring injury, which underscores the importance that junior A.J. West, LeBarron and sophomore Christy Frierson have to be successful for the Wildcats to win games.

Valencia

One Foothill League coach called Valencia’s top six in the lineup arguably the best in the state of California. It’s a regular Viking standard — a team that can mash.

The core of the Valencia offense is first baseman Devin Davis, shortstop Keston Hiura (who hit for the cycle in preleague play), catcher Anthony Lepre, power-hitting right-fielder Chad Bible and athletic center fielder Chris McCready.

Valencia can put up football scores offensively, but the goal is to not let opponents do the same.

The Vikings don’t have much in terms of varsity experience on the mound.

Junior right-handers Kevin Chandler, a battler and innings eater, and Dylan Thomas will have to come along quickly, while senior sidearmer Andrew Hodges figures to be there to back those guys up.

“Pitching is extremely vital, but I think offensively if you can do the things and execute, you can overcome (not having pitching depth),” said Valencia head coach Jared Snyder.

Hart

The 2013 season for Hart baseball was a landmark for the Indians and not in a good way. It marked the first season since 1986 that Hart missed a CIF postseason. Injuries took their toll on the Indians, and one-run games were the norm — 17 in total and 12 in Foothill League play.

However, the Indians are a trendy Foothill League title pick in 2014.

A major reason is talent. Six current players will be playing baseball for four-year colleges next year, highlighted by shortstop Nick Valaika, who because of injuries has yet to show his peak.

However, Valaika (UCLA commit) has natural abilities in the infield, can hit, hit for power, has speed and is heady.

Junior Dayton Provost (UCLA) has been moved to the outfield to maximize his potential. One of the fastest players in the SCV has been hampered by hamstring issues over the last year that has also robbed the Indians of his max.

Center fielder Wes Fitzpatrick returns after a year off from injury and provides the Indians with a table-setter on offense and a gap-eater on defense.

First baseman Austin Russ provides some power in the lineup.

Hart will rely on two junior pitchers (Jack Ralston, 0.54 ERA thus far, and Paul Richan, 3.18 ERA) and a senior Chad Haslock (2.15 ERA) to carry them through the Foothill League and beyond.

Hart head coach Jim Ozella is high on his team.

“We can defend, we can pitch, we are offensively very explosive, we can run, we’re athletic, we will steal bases,” Ozella said.

And they’re hungry.

Saugus

Saugus baseball will scrap for runs in 2014 and hope arguably the deepest pitching staff in the Foothill League will turn close games into wins.

Saugus has five junior pitchers who could all contribute — Anthony Donatella, Robert Winslow, Chase Wheatcroft, Caden Maher and Eric Little.

The offense will revolve around four-year varsity outfielder Roy Verdejo and a lineup that is mostly unproven in Foothill League play.

Saugus was another team bit by the injury bug last season, with junior Rex Kemple being a perfect example of what could have been with the Cents last year.

A broken wrist sidelined him for the latter part of Foothill play when he was hitting .375.

“We’ll feed off pitching and defense,” said Saugus head coach John Maggiora. “If we do what we think we can with pitching and defense, we’ll be in every game.”

Golden Valley

With the Grizzlies, things have to start with what’s new and that’s head coach Gino Pomilia, who comes over from Canyon High School by way of Redwood High in Northern California.

Pomilia said what’s different is a stressing on fundamentals — defense and throwing strikes. Those kept Golden Valley from reaching the next step, which is the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.

The Grizzlies have a tall task to get there this year.

Pitcher/shortstop and Grambling State commit Jaiden France will be batting cleanup and is the team’s No. 1 starter.

Center fielder Josh Lampariello, Pomilia said, is “probably the most complete player on our team. He can run, he can throw, he makes the catches. … He’s the epitome of a center fielder and the epitome of leadoff guy.”

Golden Valley still has position battles going into league season — both on the mound and off it.

Pomilia has talked up senior right-hander John Mark Niednagel, who didn’t get a lot of innings last year.

The coach is very optimistic on this team.

“The team doesn’t surprise me,” Pomilia said. “I know how hard they’ve worked. … This team wouldn’t surprise me to reach levels they’ve never reached before.”

 

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