Valencia team to beat as Foothill League baseball starts today

Valencia pitcher Mitchell Torres (10) picks up a ground ball and throws to third base for the third out to end the third inning against Hart at Hart High on Friday, March 29, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

With three league titles in the last four years and a starting lineup that returns just about all its players from last season, it looks like Valencia may be the team to beat as the Foothill League baseball season begins today.

“We actually have a ton of seniors, way more than you would normally expect,” said Vikings coach Mike Killinger. “They’re a very tight group; they’ve been together for a long time. Friends playing together since eighth grade, so they’re here for each other, which is really awesome.”

Ryan Kysar returns as Valencia’s ace and so far this season, he has a .047 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 15 innings. He’s given up seven hits. Tyler Robitaille and Mitchell Torres, two more seniors, will also be seen on the mound this season.

On offense, Steven Gonzalez is returning healthy for his senior year after a broken thumb hindered him last season. In six games, he’s hit 4-for-17 for a .235 batting average with seven RBIs and one home run.

“He broke his thumb early in the year, so he didn’t get to show off what he can do and this summer and fall he’s really stepped up and he has a lot of interest and signed with USC,” Killinger said. “He’ll hit in the middle of the order and he’ll be starting third baseman.”

Grant Weiss will start at catcher and Jakob Marquez, a transfer from Hart, could fill in when needed. Marquez will start at shortstop and will be in the middle of the batting order.

Valencia catcher Grant Weiss (24) catches a pop-up in the sixth inning against Saugus at Valencia on Friday, March 1, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

The team is constantly making itself better as the pitchers have solid hitting to practice against and vice versa.

“The inter squads are really competitive, which is fun. Sometimes you don’t have the depth so it’s not as even when you battle but these guys all get after it and it’s been a fun group to coach.”

West Ranch, which finished second in league last season, brings a young roster into this year, but one that shows promise. The Wildcats have started up to five sophomores in a game, with players like catcher Logan Mandell, right-fielder DJ Tsukashima, designated hitter Blake Schroeder, second baseman Jake Callahan and pitcher Jake Schwartz.

Also making his Foothill League debut will be RJ Gordon, a senior transfer from Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks. Gordon, an Oregon commit, has become a leader on the team. He’s taken over duties in center field and has also provided support out of the bullpen when needed.

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Nick Perez, a catcher, brings adequate experience both behind the plate and at it. In his junior year with the Wildcats, Perez had a .310 batting average and logged 27 RBIs and three home runs. 

As a senior, he’s in his third year as the starting catcher for the Cats and also has the capabilities to fill in at various other positions when called upon. Perez’s veteran presence has also served the young pitching staff well.

“He’s our best returning baseball player and any success we have is going to go through Nick,” said West Ranch coach Casey Burrill. “Nick is fantastic and has all the experience. When you have a young, inexperienced pitching staff, it’s nice to know you’ve got a salty veteran catcher back there to handle it.”

The Wildcats return just five innings of pitching experience from last season. Juniors Scott Bauman and Ryan Lang have emerged as two of the most reliable starters.

“At this point, our pitching has been fantastic,” Burrill said. “If we are going to have success in league play, it’s going to have to stay that way and we’re going to find some offense.”

Hart enters league play ranked sixth in Division 3 in the latest CIF-Southern Section polls, despite losing its last three games to tough Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park teams.

Like West Ranch, the Indians are fielding a relatively young team this season, and one that isn’t 100% healthy, either. Pitcher Dan Parra is out for the season due to Tommy John surgery and Warner Rhodes, another pitcher, isn’t playing due to injury.

That leaves junior Ben Niednagel as a starting pitcher as well as freshman Lucas Despain.

“We’re happy with his progress,” said Hart coach Jim Ozella of Despain. “And we’ve got some guys in relief that have pitched well at times.”

Isaac Kim, a senior who spent most of last season out with a hamstring injury, has recovered and will start at first base for the Indians.

Hart junior Isaac Kim grounds one down the line in a Foothill League matchup with Canyon at Canyon High School on Friday, March 22, 2019. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“He’s done a lot of work on improving his body,” Ozella said. “A lot of work on his overall game. He’s kind of a different guy than he was last year. He’s done a lot of work to make himself a better player and kudos to him on that.”

Ryan Benz will also be back for his junior year to provide some power on offense. Although injury sidelined him for most of last season, Benz showed promise at the plate as an underclassman.

The Indians have six seniors on the roster, a relatively small number. But after a tough 2019 season that involved significant adversity due to injury and inexperience and resulted in a fourth-place league finish, the returners are battle-tested.

“Young teams have to learn how to get over the hump,” Ozella said. “It entails every phase of the game: defense, better pitches on the mound, better at-bats at key moments. We’re happy where we are, we’re not satisfied. We’re trying to keep making the progress we need to make.”

Saugus, which claimed third place in the Foothill League last season, has plenty of experience under its belt after a playoff run that ended in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.

Only two players from that team return this season, however: Hayden Trowbridge and Shane Kinsley.

Saugus junior Hayden Trowbridge leads off from third in a Foothill League matchup with Golden Valley at Saugus High School on March 25, 2019. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“They talk about last year often and say the regular season is nice, but the playoffs is where it’s at and I’m hoping that kind of garners some steam and these guys kind of buy into that,” said Centurions coach Carl Grissom.

Trowbridge has the most varsity experience and is expected to play a big role this season. Last season in 19 games, he had a batting average and slugging percentage of .209 with two RBIs and three stolen bases.

Grissom has spread time between multiple pitchers, but Jaiden Patterson and John Bahr have seen the most time on the mound. Sophomores Carson Knapp and Nolan Swailes could also work their way into the rotation as the season goes on.

“It’s a completely different team from last year,” Grissom said. “We’re starting all over. Majority of the team is pretty much underclassmen, so yeah. It’s a fresh new start for us but the kids that we have are coming up, are very talented but they’re inexperienced. So we just have to kind of work our way through things.”

Golden Valley enters the season as a senior-heavy team that’s healthy and has plenty of chemistry. The Grizzlies have been working on shoring up a few small details ahead of today’s league opener.

“In our losses … the timing is not right on defense mostly, so we try to work those things out in practice and we feel like we’ve done that,” said head coach Matt Sorenson. “So some of our timing issues and communication issues, we’ve worked those out so I feel if we can execute a game plan we have a chance to compete against anybody.”

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Senior Chase Hwang embodies Sorenson’s vision for the team. He’s the team’s most consistent player on both offense and defense playing first base and pitching in relief.

“Mr. Reliable,” Sorenson said. “He’s level headed, he’s even-keeled, never gets too high, never gets too low. Always a competitive at-bat, got the most positive personality. The personality you need to be successful in this game.”

Canyon has matured in the off-season and has a stronger mental approach to the game, according to second-year head coach Justin Stark.

“We’re able to answer back,” Stark said. “When someone scores first we’re able to answer back and we don’t seem like we get overwhelmed with those situations. We definitely matured.”

Jacob Melville will be the predominant pitcher for the Cowboys this season after being in and out of the rotation due to injury. Senior captains Noah Blythe and Tyler DeYoung have been leading the team and also have been role models for the attitude Stark is looking for this season.

“They just bring a really competitive environment,” he said. “They’re always competing against each other. It creates a good culture to compete against one another. It kind of just helps make practice more competitive because it’s not always easy to have a competitive environment at practice but those guys make it easier.”

Hart plays at Golden Valley today, while Saugus will be at West Ranch. Canyon rounds out the Foothill League action as it hosts Valencia. All games are scheduled for 3 p.m.

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