By Justin Vigil-Zuniga
Signal Sports Writer
For the first time, seven Foothill League teams will enter the season with a single goal in mind. More than half the league will feature new faces at the helm as four teams have made head coaching changes entering this season.
Hart will defend their crown and will try for another back-to-back Foothill League title. The Indians are also the last team to repeat as league champs back in 2014 and 2015. However, every other program has the confidence that they can be the one on top of the standings come May.
Hart (4-4), like most of the league, has scheduled some tough opponents to kick off their non-league play. So far the Indians’ record looks worrisome but the team has fared well in spite of some injuries. Two of Hart’s wins were over CIF preseason top-10-ranked teams and three of their losses were by one run.
Hart is coming off yet another league title with an impressive 14-1 league record. The team also has 2021 Foothill League player of the year Matt Quintanar playing his final season for the Indians as well as sophomore 2021 first teamer Brayden Jeffris.
However, head coach Jim Ozella knows things can change quickly in a year and noted senior Reagan Meyer, a second baseman who didn’t get much playing time as a junior, as probably the team’s best hitter right now.
“Last year’s opportunities were very limited,” said Ozella. “This year he’s taken advantage of that and he’s really shined.”
The team lost a good chunk of seniors last year as well as having three early injuries all in the pitching staff. Ozella has had big contributions from pitchers Aaron Silverman, Ethan Rhodes, Sean Elsee and Michael Rogozik, who have all stepped up in their teammates’ absences. Hart is hopeful to get all its pitchers back including, 6-foot-7 junior left-handed pitcher Chris Downs.
Hart opens up league action hosting Golden Valley Wednesday Mar. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
The Grizzlies (4-3) are surprising teams left and right. The high-scoring Golden Valley squad is currently riding high under first-year head coach Adrian Rios. The team has scored nine or more runs in five of their seven games so far, thanks in part to Rios’ upgrades to Golden Valley’s baseball facilities. The first-year skipper has helped get the school new batting cages where the team can hit every day.
The team has solid bats throughout their order but will rely on Wyatt Crosby, Maurice Edwards and Sam Estrella near the top of the order to keep the Grizzlies scoring in double digits.
Rios will also have Edwards on the mound along with Jack Steidl, Rowen Hicks and Francisco Agredano trying to keep all the great-hitting Foothill League teams in check.
The Grizzlies have already surpassed their win total of the last two seasons combined with relatively the same team. Rios has his guys playing so far but time will tell if their hot bats will carry on through the Foothill League season.
Golden Valley will play Castaic Wednesday at home and Friday at Castaic. Both league games are slated for a 3:30 p.m. start time.
Saugus (4-4) has one of the more seasoned teams in the Foothill league with a total of 18 seniors. They have had plenty of time on varsity and head coach Carl Grissom knows the climb it will be to get the Centurions back on top. Some key seniors graduated last year but Grissom believes his new team has filled their shoes well.
A league title for Saugus aside from their main objective would also be the team’s first top-two finish in 10 years. Grissom described his season as a rollercoaster so far but thinks the team will be in good shape once they win two in a row.
Saugus will need a lot of bats to step up this year. The team will rely on Colin Yeaman, Erik Polanco, Carson Panarisi and Zach Plasschaert for big at bats. Yeaman was the team’s only first-teamer last season while Plasschaert, a junior, is committed to play at the University of Arizona.
The Centurions will send Carson Knapp and Connor Bates to the mound plenty this season.
“If they have the years I believe they are going to have, we’ll do good things,” said Grissom. “But we got to play behind them, too, play defense and do the little things.”
Grissom knows his team will make some mistakes just like any other team, but said if the team can keep them at a minimum, he believes the team will do well.
Saugus opens up Foothill League play on the road Wednesday against Valencia at 3:30 p.m.
The longtime SCV baseball giant had a tough season last spring. The team finished 11-12 and missed the playoffs for the first time in more than 15 years. Valencia has brought in first-year head coach Brad Meza in hopes of quickly cleaning up the program. Meza is a former standout player from Hart and helped the Indians win three league titles as a player before later joining the Hart coaching staff.
“At first the purple was a little daunting on me,” said Meza. “But I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Valencia (2-5) has struggled so far but Meza noted that although this is not how he imagined the team starting, the only thing that matters is how you finish.
The Vikings will need consistent bats throughout the order to compete with the other Foothill League schools. Fortunately for Meza, he’ll have big bats in seniors Scotty Pieper, Noah Nichols, Matt Chapman and Jose Mariano.
Pieper is Valencia’s sole first-teamer to return from last season and remains a dangerous leadoff hitter.
“Scotty Pieper is a little spark plug,” said Meza. “He gets on base and makes things happen.”
Valencia will showcase big senior arms in Tyler Biggs, Kaden Shields and Matt Chapman on the mound. Biggs and Chapman will serve as starters while Shields will remain a proven relief pitcher.
The Vikings open up league play Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. when they host Saugus.
The first-year varsity program of Castaic will enter varsity baseball a year earlier than expected. After the bulk of this team was forced to play frosh last season and nearly went undefeated, head coach Darrell Davis thought his team was ready to compete in varsity.
The Coyotes (4-2-1) have surprised some teams in their inaugural season with some solid wins including a 26-0 beatdown of Pacifica Christian.
Davis will need big plays at the plate from Aaron Gonzalez, Matt Airhart, Leo D’Alessandro, Ethan Silva and Kyler Freude.
Castaic will also have Airhart and Freude on the mound along with junior Brayden Lester.
Davis has no seniors on his team and with the skipper’s confidence in his players, the future could be looking bright in Castaic.
“We’re trying to build something special,” said Davis. “We have a very good lower class.”
The Coyotes will travel to Golden Valley for their league opener Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.
The Cowboys are building from the ground up after last year’s three-win season. Second-year head coach Jeremy Leonardo will once again lead his team on their journey in the 2022 season.
So far Canyon (5-3-1) has fared well with solid wins, a four-game win streak and close games in all their losses. Leonardo’s group fell in a one-run game in their last game before league play but the team is still playing with confidence.
The Cowboys have some solid bats in Danny Fields, Josh Critchfield, Jacob Mourthi and Tsukasa Ozaki.
Critchfield will also be an aggressive ace on the mound for Canyon. The senior aims to be one of the best pitchers in the Foothill League along with Fields, Travis Enbody and Roman Mercado.
Canyon will head to West Ranch Wednesday at 3:30.
The Wildcats are coming off an excellent second-place finish last season. First-year head coach Ryan Lindgreen will have plenty of returners at the plate but has the exact opposite issue on the mound. West Ranch graduated a plethora of senior pitchers last year and will have some new faces on the mound in hopes of another impressive season.
So far, West Ranch (2-5) has struggled to win in a tough preseason scheduled by Lindgreen. However, the team has played in mostly tight games with some stiff competition. But, losing five in a row heading into league play is less than ideal.
“We do feel like we’re battle tested,” said Lindgreen. “We’ve seen a lot of really great baseball. Hopefully it puts us in a position to be successful moving forward.”
The Wildcats’ offense is still dangerous as ever. Lindgreen has six returning bats from last season who hit over .333 in Jake Callahan, Blake Schroeder, Logan Mandel, Ty DePerno, DJ Tsukashima and Connor Coughenour.
The new pitching staff will feature Matthew Lloyd, Caden Deck, Jake Schwartz and Jackson Banuelos.
West Ranch will host Canyon on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.