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2013 Foothill League baseball preview: Big turnover levels playing field

With several key players gone for various reasons, the league is left wide open

Posted: March 12, 2013 10:42 p.m.
Updated: March 12, 2013 10:42 p.m.

Valencia pitcher J.D. Busfield showed great potential last year, earning the title of Valencia's ace.

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It can’t be ignored that a balancing of Foothill League baseball took place mostly in the months of June through October of last year.

After winning the Foothill League title for the first time in school history last May and reaching the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division I playoffs, West Ranch High lost the best player in the valley in J.C. Cloney to graduation.

Valencia lost power hitters Trey Williams and Brian Mundell, also to graduation.

And in October, Hart lost three players because of disciplinary reasons, including three-year varsity player Luke Persico.

This is one of those years where who left is the lead story in 2013 over who’s left.

It has caused a you-pick-em Foothill League champion.

Valencia is back again as the trendy pick.

West Ranch is the defending champion with experienced talent.

Saugus’ solid nucleus made Valencia head coach Jared Snyder label it the team to beat.

Hart’s still Hart — meaning tradition and grit remain, despite the losses.

Canyon is the dark horse and not out of the conversation.

Golden Valley will win games. The question is just how many?

That sets the table for 2013.


West Ranch

The Wildcats (4-1 in 2013) lost the best pitcher in the Foothill League in Cloney.

It has, based off past performance, the best pitcher in the Foothill League in Cody Bennett.

But past the right-hander with the three-quarter slingshot delivery, the Wildcats are searching.

It’s a different situation for previously pitching-rich West Ranch, which has been led by a deep rotation for the last five years.

Junior Davis LeBarron was going to be the team’s No. 2 starter, but an ankle injury suffered in a scrimmage will cost him the season.

“There’s no doubt we are going to have to have guys step up that wouldn’t have been relied upon a month ago,” said West Ranch head coach Casey Burrill. “We have lots of capable guys who have a shot at taking over that No. 2 spot.”

Hard-throwing junior Jake Bird and senior Kyle Williams, fresh off a deep run in the basketball playoffs, are two candidates.

West Ranch does have some sure things, though.

Switch-hitting shortstop Jagger Rusconi is coming off one of the most sensational freshman seasons in Santa Clarita Valley history.

Clutch-hitting corner infielder Tyler Woldanski and consistent center fielder Tony Slauson also give the Wildcats some pop in their lineup.

“I think you would include us in the mix if we can establish a second or third arm,” Burrill said of title hopes.


Valencia

Snyder was extremely hush hush on 6-foot-5-inch right-hander J.D. Busfield.

The senior pitcher was bothered by a shoulder injury in his non-throwing arm last season, but still established himself as the Vikings’ top guy.

The coach admitted, though, that we haven’t seen the best of the Vikings’ ace yet.

Valencia (4-1) feels, though, it has a couple of options on the mound that should make it deeper than most of its foes.

“Our pitching is extremely improved,” Snyder said. “Most of the guys stepping up have been better and are giving us quality innings — J.D., (seniors) Luke Soroko and Quentin Daniels have been efficient and in the strikezone — competing like they’re ready to do something. They’re taking it personal.”

Offense has always been Valencia’s staple and it remains the strength of the team.

A.J. Balta, now a senior and the 2011 Foothill League and Signal’s All-Santa Clarita Valley player of the year, battled through injury last season and the Oregon commit is healthy for this one.

He has moved to second base from center field to make room for athletic junior Chris McCready.

Junior Keston Hiura moves to shortstop from second base.

He was a revelation last season with his bat and defense and one of a crop of young Vikings who got valuable playing time last season.

Sophomore catcher Anthony Lepre and sophomore first baseman Devon Davis will be counted on for more in 2013.

Two other intriguing players are outfielders Kyle Sanchez, for his hitting ability, and Chad Bible — a junior transfer from Colorado whose father, Mike, was a star for Saugus in the 1980s.


Saugus

This time around, the Centurions won’t be a surprise.

Saugus (4-3) played in its first CIF-SS quarterfinal playoff game in 2012 since 1991, then followed that act up with an appearance in the semifinals of the competitive summer Valley Invitational Baseball League.

The Centurions mirror the Wildcats in that they lost league pitcher of the year Justin Donatella to graduation, and now offense is their strength.

Senior catcher Nick Warren will be playing for Fresno State next season.

Like Warren, senior shortstop Chris Devery is a third-year varsity player.

Senior second baseman Dylan Freyre is another veteran whose bat has won games for the Cents in the past.

Junior outfielder Roy Verdejo actually had a better batting average than those three, though, in 2012 at .364.

On the mound, senior Chris Danielson returns the most innings from last season at 28, and he had a 1.25 ERA in that action.

Sophomore three-quarter-angle pitcher Eric Little also got his feet wet last season.

But this is a young team — three freshmen (including former Saugus star and Major League pitcher Roger Salkeld’s son Caden) and six sophomores.

“I think what people forget is there are a lot of guys we lost, but those guys left a blueprint on how to do it, how to compete,” said Saugus head coach John Maggiora. “These younger guys, we wouldn’t have them up if they didn’t belong.”


Hart

Hart head coach Jim Ozella said his team is past losing three quality baseball players.

One major reason is a veteran trio that remains.

“We’ve got three guys who we feel are outstanding and need to play well for us,” Ozella said. “We have what we have and are doing the best with what we have.”

Army commit and catcher Baggio Saldivar is the team’s unquestioned leader.

A powerhouse at the plate, a defensive force behind it and a presence in the dugout, Saldivar is the kind of player who could will his team far.

The other two — junior shortstop Nick Valaika and sophomore second baseman Dayton Provost — were robbed of much of 2012 because of injuries.

A healthy Valaika is something the Santa Clarita Valley has been waiting for.

A natural shortstop with great hands, range and an arm, and a multidimensional hitter, Valaika could show it this year.

Provost is lightning, and his hamstring is said to be healed.

The offense will build around those three with others, including promising sophomore Colby Kaneshiro chipping in.

Hart’s question mark is on the mound.

The team’s top three pitching options — 6-foot-5-inch senior Aaron Hamilton, 6-foot-3-inch senior Tyler Geissler and sophomore varsity newcomer Jack Ralston combined for 14 varsity innings last season.

It puts Hart (4-3) in tricky situation.

But the Indians have found ways in the past and have made the CIF postseason 26 straight years.


Canyon

When we last left Canyon, we saw them as a promising team for 2013 because of an overwhelming amount of varsity experience with three pitchers — seniors Max Weinstein and Chris Serrano and junior Justin Stark.

Weinstein and Serrano are still being counted on to lead the staff, but Stark is now the team’s primary catcher.

Canyon (5-2) still has some depth behind the ace Weinstein and Serrano, who has been used in every situation imaginable, with sophomore Blake Leidholdt and junior Jon Dicey.

But two reasons, among many, why Canyon hasn’t reached the postseason since 2007 are offense and defense.

Offense is less of a question compared to last season, when the Cowboys scored slightly under four runs per game.

In seven preleague games, the Cowboys have scored 62 runs, with outputs of seven, eight, nine, 10 and 24 runs thus far.

“We’re scoring runs, but league is what it is,” said Canyon head coach Adam Schulhofer. “Every game’s like a playoff atmosphere. We’re hoping we can continue it and the guys we’re counting on we think we’ll get consistent play from.”

There are some veteran run producers, like Weinstein, who plays shortstop when not on the mound, and junior outfielder Cole Mears.

Junior first baseman Vincent Fitzgerald has been lights out early with a .562 batting average, two home runs and 11 RBIs.

Canyon is also counting on senior corner infielder Taro Okada and middle infielder Christopher Jenkins to continue their early hot starts.


Golden Valley

It’s sort of hard to keep up with Golden Valley head coach Scott Drootin and his new heights every season.

But this year he said this is his deepest team.

It’s a bit of a surprise, considering there’s been some talent in the program.

Yet the message he’s trying to convey is the talent is a little more spread out on this team.

Reigning batting champion and senior infielder Billy Fredrick is the undoubted offensive threat for the Grizzlies and will be finishing his four-year varsity career with a lot of determination.

A group of kids saw significant at-bats last season in sophomore Lukas Granado, juniors Jaiden France and Josh Lampariello and seniors Equan Martin and Josh Baldacci.

However, all five have yet to find their stroke.

The Grizzlies (1-4) think they have the depth on the mound to compete in the Foothill.

Junior right-hander John Mark Niednagel led the Grizzlies in innings last season and had a respectable 4.06 ERA.

France, Baldacci and senior Nick Tejada also saw action on the mound this year.

“I go to more guys. I don’t have to depend on five or six players,” Drootin said of his team. “I think our team should (compete). I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”


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