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Hart grad Valaika, Valencia grad Zeile win NCAA title with UCLA baseball

Posted: June 29, 2013 10:00 a.m.
Updated: June 29, 2013 10:00 a.m.

Hart graduate Pat Valaika, shortstop for UCLA, and Valencia graduate Shane Zeile, the Bruins' catcher, teamed up to help the UCLA baseball team win an NCAA Division I championship this season.

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UCLA baseball won a national championship on June 24 with two Santa Clarita Valley prep baseball stars in the starting lineup — shortstop Pat Valaika and catcher Shane Zeile.

For a sport that doesn’t get much national attention, it’s very easy to overlook what they meant to the Bruins.

Allow head coach John Savage to describe their value.

“He’s been the heart and soul of our team,” Savage says of Valaika, a 2010 Hart High graduate.

And of Zeile: “He’s one of the reasons why we did as well as we did.”

Valaika led the Bruins with five home runs and 48 RBIs, was a .253 hitter this year as a junior, but maybe more importantly was the first Bruin to win the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Zeile batted .226 with two home runs and 20 RBIs, but managed a pitching staff that was arguable the best in the country. It’s not arguable that it was the best in the postseason, surrendering only 14 runs in 10 NCAA postseason games.

The Bruins went 10-0 in those games — three in a regional they hosted at their own Jackie Robinson Stadium, two in the NCAA Super Regionals against Cal State Fullerton in Fullerton and five in Omaha, Neb. at the College World Series.

The culmination was June 25 — an 8-0 win over Mississippi State to win the UCLA athletics program’s 109th national title and the baseball program’s first.

“It was unreal. Ground ball to first base, it was surreal. I still can’t believe we won the national championship,” Zeile says. “I was at the bottom of the dogpile at Fullerton. I got crunched. I thought I was going to die. This time around I leaned my lesson and jumped on top. It was unreal. It was the greatest moment of my life.”

Zeile’s vantage point of the last out was from the catcher’s position.

Those who saw him play at Valencia High don’t recognize him as a catcher.

They recognize him as a steady shortstop and third baseman.

And that’s how UCLA used him as a freshman, until the coaching staff sent him a catcher’s mitt prior to the 2013 season.

Zeile hadn’t played catcher since before high school.

To make the learning curve that much more difficult, he had shoulder surgery in the fall.

However, he was UCLA’s guy behind the plate.

“To make that transition from infield to catcher is almost unheard of, and he didn’t have the fall to do it,” Savage says. “He’s done a great job. He suffered offensively, but I tell you what, he’s a prospect. He can catch. He can throw. He can receive. He can block. … He’s one of the reasons why we did as well as we did because he made that transition so quickly. He caught a bunch of great arms, but he did a great job making that transition.”

When Savage says prospect, he means professional baseball prospect.

The sophomore and 2011 Valencia graduate certainly has the pedigree to do it.

His uncle Todd Zeile, a Hart graduate, played 16 Major League seasons and collected 2,004 hits and socked 253 home runs.

Todd Zeile was also a former UCLA star.

He texted his nephew after the championship to congratulate him and tell him he did something he never did.

Valaika got texts from a current Major Leaguer, his brother and Miami Marlins infielder Chris Valaika — a player who also never won a national title.

Pat is following in his brother’s footsteps in another respect, though.

He was selected in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft on June 7 by the Colorado Rockies.

As a junior, he could return to UCLA for his senior year, but says he will likely sign with the Rockies.

“I’ve had three great years at UCLA,” he says. “It’s time to move on. No better way to go out.”

Valaika says of all his personal accomplishments, the defensive player of the year is the highest.

He had a great year in 2012 defensively and thought he had a chance to win the award.

He didn’t, though, but was dedicated to continuing his ascent — not only as a defensive player, but as an offensive player.

He’s had steady gains in all areas since he came into UCLA.

“He elevated his game,” Savage says. “I thought he was the best shortstop in the country. I really did. You’re talking about a guy who played as good a defense as anybody. He’s a gold glove guy. He’s a clutch hitter. You want him in a big situation. I love him. I think the Rockies got a steal in the ninth round. He’s got a future.”

Valaika was in the biggest situation in UCLA history playing shortstop — two outs, bottom of the ninth inning, 8-0 lead on Mississippi State.

“It was 8-0. We kind of knew we had it in the bag, but once that last out was made, the fireworks go off, the dogpile begins,” Valaika says. “It was one of the special moments in my life.”

The Bruins were in no way expected to go on the run they did.

“Not a .230 hitting team. Not a small ball team,” Zeile says.

But a lot of baseball great teams’ strengths are up the middle. Like the Bruins. A lot of credit goes to a pitching staff that had the lowest ERA in the aluminum bat era of the College World Series. But the catcher and shortstop deserve their credit also.

 

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