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Saugus' Justin Donatella: Notion refuted

Saugus’ Donatella and his team are exceeding expectations

Posted: May 17, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 17, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Saugus High senior pitcher Justin Donatella wasn’t always the best player on his team. But the 6-foot, 5-inch pitcher has grown into a surprised ace for the Centurions.

 

There were hopes for Justin Donatella, as with any high school baseball player coming in as a freshman.

Yet hopes and expectations were two different things.

When Gary Donatella, a longtime respected high school baseball coach, crossed paths with Saugus head baseball coach John Maggiora prior to his son’s arrival at the high school, he was honest with the Centurions’ skipper.

He told Maggiora his son Justin was a baseball player.

A good baseball player. But not a frills and thrills baseball player.

As a former coach at Marshall High of Los Angeles (1983-88) and Sylmar High (1989-2002), he didn’t know how his son would compare with other freshmen, because in his school districts there were no freshman teams.

And at the William S. Hart PONY League, Donatella wasn’t a standout player.

So Gary was just being up front with Maggiora.

Four years later, Justin Donatella came into his senior season on a baseball team — a good baseball team, just no frills or thrills.

On paper and in comparison to two teams in particular — preseason Foothill League title favorites West Ranch and Valencia — Donatella’s Saugus baseball team didn’t measure up.

Expectations from outside the program weren’t exactly promising — especially for a team that finished tied for last in league in 2011.

But there’s this thing about expectations.

They’re not always right.

“Do I care?” Donatella asks about the expectations for his team coming into this season. “No. As far as I’m concerned, we have to do our job, and that’s to win.”

Saugus baseball went into last week, the final week of Foothill League play, with a chance to win an unlikely Foothill League title.

After going 1-1 against Foothill champion West Ranch, the Centurions finished in second place.

Yet, they won their season series against the Wildcats and Valencia.

Now, they’re in the postseason with a CIF-Southern Section Division I first-round game as the hosts to Oxnard High.

And much of the reason for their success has been Justin Donatella.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 190-pound right-hander pitched in 15 of Saugus’ 27 games this season and recorded an 8-2 record with two saves and a 2.02 ERA.

He was also the team’s cleanup hitter, batting .326 with 18 RBIs.

“He’s been probably the key to our success,” says Saugus pitching coach Roger Salkeld — a Saugus High graduate and former Major League pitcher. “I wouldn’t say he’s the guy who goes to the mound and you chalk up a win, but he gives you a chance to win every game.”

That’s a telling statement about Donatella, and very much a reflection of his team.

He might not be the biggest name in the Foothill League, nor is he the most decorated pitcher, but he quietly gets the job done.

Like Saugus has all season long.

“He’s very workmanlike. If that’s the perception of our program, I’m perfectly OK with that,” Maggiora says. “(Justin’s) the quiet unassuming kid. He’s in my history class. Sits in the front. Doesn’t say a word.”

But it wasn’t necessarily his quiet nature that made him less of a prospect early on as much as it was his size.

As a freshman, he was 6-foot-1 and 130 pounds and far from realizing his full potential.

He was awkward.

“Pretty awkward,” Donatella says.

Yet he had baseball in his blood.

Having a father who was a respected member of the baseball community, Donatella entered high school with a high baseball IQ.

It just needed a little more development and refinement.

“Justin was always a kid who liked baseball, but something happened when he stepped on campus at Saugus,” Gary says. “His work ethic increased immensely. I give the coaches credit for that. Given the fact he was starting to mature a little bit himself, maybe some of the things we taught him clicked.”

Last season, Donatella was 3-5 on the mound with a 3.74 ERA in 48 2/3 innings for Saugus.

Yet the experience helped the young pitcher.

In the summer, he took part in an Arizona showcase and caught the eye of a few colleges. He will be playing for one of those colleges next season — UC San Diego.

But before college was, and still is, his senior season — and he still had strides to make.

Enter Salkeld.

Donatella butted heads with his pitching coach early on because he was dissatisfied with his own progress.

The refinement process was very detailed.

Salkeld not only fixed some mechanics, but worked on his mental makeup on the mound.

In the past, Donatella would show emotion if something went wrong. Salkeld tried to get him to have a short memory with mistakes.

He has done so and become a better pitcher.

“Justin’s a very bright young man — 4.0-plus GPA. So things have come easily to him. In that sense, he expects instant results,” Salkeld says. “Once he relaxed, things were starting to come together.”

That relaxation is another reflection of his team.

Because expectations from the outside weren’t high, the team played loose, and it showed.

Saugus may not have won the Foothill League title, but they begin the postseason on Friday.

On the mound will be Saugus’ ace — Justin Donatella.

Few will expect that Saugus will go far in the postseason.

Donatella and his teammates don’t care.

Expectations don’t always work out.

661-287-5529

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