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Hart's generation of Valaikas

Final of four brothers finishes his career as a shortstop at Hart, ending an impressive era

Posted: May 25, 2014 9:58 p.m.
Updated: May 25, 2014 9:58 p.m.

From left, Ilona, Jeff and Nick Valaika chat with Hart High baseball coach Jim Ozella before a practice at Hart High School on Thursday.

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There are no more.

Not a half-brother or a long-lost brother, not even a daring younger sister.

Nick is the last.

His last name defines not only a position in Hart High’s baseball program, it represents unparalleled excellence.

Since 2000, Hart High School’s starting shortstop has been a Valaika in 11 seasons.

Beginning with Chris in 2000 and ending with Nick this season, the Valaika family has had one of the most unprecedented runs for a family in Santa Clarita Valley sports history.

Chris (2000-03), Matt (04-06), Pat (08-10) and Nick (12-14) have all been multi-year starters for Hart at shortstop, have all received college scholarships and the first three have been professional baseball players.

The family has been such an institution that Sports Illustrated wrote an article on it in March.

Not favoritism, nor politics, nor some lucky coincidence has been the reason for the Valaika brothers’ success.

So how does one explain this run?

Was it by design?

Not really.

It starts with a husband and wife team who were dedicated to giving their children an enjoyable athletic experience and the sort of competition that would challenge and benefit them.

“They’re special people,” says Hart High head coach Jim Ozella, whose first season leading the Indians was 2000. “Special people give of themselves and I’ve never experienced anything in the years with them that I would ever doubt them. (With them, it’s,) ‘How can we help? How can we lead?’ They’re special people.”


***

Jeff Valaika, the son of a baseball and basketball coach, was a high school basketball coach in the Chicago area who decided to finish up his master’s degree at USC.

It was at USC where he was a volunteer assistant men’s basketball coach for a season.

And it was during his time at USC that he met his future wife Ilona.

Before their kids came to Hart High School, the Valaikas were coaching in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Jeff was coaching his kids in soccer and baseball.

And Ilona, 9 months pregnant with Nick, was running up and down a soccer field coaching the only daughter of the five siblings, Briana.

“Dad’s not going to know how to do pretty bows,” Ilona says on why she took on coaching, despite not having an athletic background of her own.

Anyone can coach.

Not everyone can teach.

That was the difference with Jeff, says Tony Moskal — Golden Valley High’s head golf coach, whose son Brendan was coached in soccer by Jeff for five years.

“He would know how to talk to a kid, put his arm around a kid instead of yell at them and say, ‘Hey, I know you’re a great player,’” Moskal says. “Yeah, a lot of coaches say that, but with Jeff it held a lot of weight.”

And while Jeff was coaching, Ilona was the team mom — leading on the organizational and logistical side.

“When you were a rookie at this stuff like we were in the beginning, it was, ‘How did Ilona pack? How did Ilona get ready?’” Moskal says. “You learn from Ilona what to do, what to bring.”

Baseball, though, was the sport where the boys found the most success.

A lot of that success can be traced to when Chris first began playing organized baseball at the William S. Hart PONY Complex.

Jeff went along with another parent named Dave Scripture who started up a travel ball team when Chris was 7 years old.

Back in the late 1980s, travel ball teams weren’t as abundant as they are today, so the Valaikas traveled up and down the state with this team.

Chris got better and by the time he was about to enter Hart High, he was asked to play on a travel ball team in Redondo Beach with players a year or two older.

It was there where Team USA scouts saw him and asked him to try out for the national under-16 squad, which he ended up making.

Chris was on the map.

But the Valaikas say they didn’t have a grand plan to put him against better competition in order for him to earn a scholarship or play pro ball.

“We never thought of it back then,” Jeff says. “We love the game so much. They were so much into baseball, we thought, ‘Let’s do it.’ Chris loved the game. It was just to compete and get better.”

Chris was becoming a star at Hart around the same time.

The brothers supported him and by seeing him succeed, it lit a desire in them.

It helped that they all hung around the ballpark and watched him play.

“I remember before every game feeding him Bubblicious gum,” says Nick, who is 10 years younger.

That gum came from mom, who was selling snacks and drinks on a table next to the bleachers at Hart High to raise money for the program.

That’s the way it has been since 2000 — anything for the program.

“She’s been incredible from day one till the end of this season — Ilona and Jeff, but more Ilona,” Ozella says. “From the get-go she’s been our Dugout (booster) Club treasurer for I don’t know how many years, and Jeff was the president. She’s been, I think, as faithful to the program as anybody could be. She’s a great role model for any parent in the Santa Clarita Valley, but also a great role model for her sons and taught them how to live life and be involved and show your love for what you’re doing.”

Through the years, Ilona has had a familiar spot at games — the back of the bleachers.

Jeff moves around more.

But they’re background people.

It’s their voice that one rarely hears, and when it is audible, it’s cheering someone on.

They never make a fuss — at least Ozella doesn’t remember it happening.

Jeff says he has had some differences in opinion with Ozella over the years, but he says once his kids reached high school, he let go of the reins.

Though complaining is not their nature, baseball hasn’t been a bed of roses for the family.

There have been adversities along the way.

Chris has gone from Cincinnati Reds top prospect to unwanted by two Major League teams. Yet he’s fought to stay in professional baseball, now having a great season for Triple-A Iowa in the Chicago Cubs system. He has three big league seasons under his belt.

Matt played briefly in the St. Louis Cardinals organization but had to retire from baseball because of an aortic aneurysm.

And it wouldn’t be high school baseball or youth sports without jealousy or people taking their shots at the family.

“We’ve had to bite our tongues,” Ilona admits. “The kids have had a target on their back. We’ve taught them to keep their mouth shut, put their head down and keep working.”

Nick has had it especially tough, Ozella says.

Before he even reached high school, there were stories published about how he was the last and best Valaika.

But Nick battled hamstring and elbow problems and at times struggled at the plate and in the field.

Last season he hit a disappointing .219.

“After his sophomore year, he had an issue with injuries and that turns into a confidence deal,” Ozella says. “You’re not sure of your ability. When do I go full speed? When do I not? He did a good job of staying within himself, being very persistent. He’s very deserving (of his accolades and respect). He’s going to be a star at (UCLA). His best days are still ahead of him.”

Nick says during these tough times, family was a driving force for him.

“It was definitely a tough time for me. I’ve never been faced with a big injury like that,” Nick says. “At first I took it as get my body back in shape. Then I got hurt a second time. I was devastated in my room. My faith, spirituality, I really trust in God. My parents were there to support me, to say the right things.”

Valaika hit .400 this season and hit three home runs. He covered so much ground on his right side that he could have played third base at the same time. On the Foothill League’s best team, he was its best player.

And at every game, Ilona was sitting in the back of the bleachers and Jeff hung out with the other dads behind the snack bar.


***

The last game was Friday.

Nick did what he did before every game.

He took his position at shortstop and drew a “V” into the dirt with his finger.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, Hart was down 7-1 to Orange Lutheran in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division I playoffs.

Valaika was on deck with a runner on and one out.

A double play would have ended his high school career on deck, like his brother, Chris,

But Nick made it to the plate and in the 207th and final plate appearance of his varsity career, he doubled sharply down the left field line to score Hart’s second and final run of the game.

It was the 312th hit and final hit by a Valaika at Hart.

Hart lost the game 7-2.

On Senior Day for the Hart High Indians baseball team on May 13, Ozella recognized 10 seniors and their parents.

In his sandpapery voice over crackling loudspeakers, he said their names one by one.

The Valaikas were last.

“Nick Valaika whose parents are Jeff and Ilona Valaika,” Ozella began. “Thank you for all your years and dedication.”

He paused a second for effect, then said, “and the shortstops.”

For a family who meant so much to one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s most historic sports programs, there will be a new setting to root at.

Pat is in Modesto, Chris in Iowa, Nick will be in Westwood. Matt will probably be a coach one day, his parents say. But their time at Hart is over.

“It will be years, but I’ll look back and catch my breath and say this was something many families (haven’t done),” Nick says. “But we’re just playing baseball. It’s not something we think of bigger than that.”

 

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