By Justin Vigil-Zuniga
Signal Sports Writer
The Hart freshman baseball team accomplished the near impossible, finishing their season unbeaten with a 23-0-1 record.
Indians baseball is consistently a threat at every level and the freshman team just set the bar even higher.
The team won 11 straight games before an extra-inning game was called off in the eighth due to open house night. The Indian players pleaded to finish the game but lived with the 1-1 tie at Saugus.
The Hart freshman team was led by head coach Joe Pieper, who capped off the undefeated year in his seventh season.
Pieper is a Hart and College of the Canyons alumnus, and was part of a Cougar state championship team in 1986.
Pieper knew he was looking at a good team at the beginning of the year but some early call-ups worried the head coach.
Freshman players Lincoln Daily and Michael Hogen were called up in the preseason with Hogen finishing the bulk of the year on varsity, causing Pieper to worry about his team early on.
“I was bitter. It didn’t look like a great group other than those two kids,” said Pieper. “I wasn’t overly optimistic.”
Pieper still went into the season with his normal mantra: work hard and have fun.
“More than anything the reason we do well is because we create a culture where it’s fun for the kids to play,” said Pieper. “Until they get to JV or varsity, I try to make it as fun as I can.”
The team sparked from the onset.
Hart was sound all around. The team had premiere pitching led by ace Carson Maymo. The pitcher finished the year with 70 strikeouts and a 0.91 ERA, allowing just 25 hits.
Two-way standout James Bacon held a 2.85 ERA along with 40 strikeouts. Bacon also led the team at the plate, batting .493 and hit the team’s only home run of the year.
The duo have been invited onto the varsity summer roster. Pieper wouldn’t be surprised if a few of his other six guys batting over .350 join as well. The skipper feels his catcher Brady Werther is one of the most varsity-ready players on the freshman team.
“Brady is a special player,” said Pieper. “His baseball IQ is spectacular.”
Werther was a hit machine, batting .408 on the season, and a strong-minded catcher. The freshman called his own games and caught opposing runners stealing throughout the year.
“I think every single one of us has developed in different ways,” said Werther. “Arm strength, hitting and fielding. We all developed in some way thanks to coach Pieper.”
The Indians managed to win a game a player short when Werther went down in a game against West Ranch. Gannon Blade was forced to catch for the first time ever but the team didn’t have an extra player to replace Blade in right field.
Hart won the game 11-5 with just two outfielders for a handful of innings. Werther would play on his injured hand in the outfield and prayed to not get a ball slapped his way.
The Indians were rolling and only Saugus would finish within two runs of the team in their first 13 games.
Another hitter over .400 was Dominic Miraglia, a player Pieper has noted as the best shortstop in the Foothill League.
“We all had a great season, everyone did their part, it was all a team effort,” said Miraglia. “If someone made an error, we had their back. We’d all come together as a team.”
Miraglia finished the year batting .426.
The Indians’ other key players were outfielder Zach Rogozik, second baseman Luke McCarty, Joseph Toscano, Tristan Purfoy and center fielder Ryder Frithsmith.
Pieper regards Rogozik as one of the faster outfielders he’s seen, McCarty as someone who always works hard and puts the ball in play, and said Frithsmith was the best defender in their league.
As Hart inched closer to the unbeaten finish line, the skipper thought his team developed a mindset where they knew they were not going to lose.
Most of the players agreed one player who really stepped up over the season was pitcher Mason Cummings.
“Going into the season, I didn’t think [Mason] would be great,” said Werther. “But after playing with him and catching him, [I saw] he was really good. He shut two teams down before Valencia. I think he was one of the guys that developed the most.”
Cummings came through when his team needed him most. Hart’s undefeated season was on the line in their season finale against Valencia.
The relief pitcher came in and shut the door on the Vikings and allowed just one hit in his near four innings of work, jump-starting the Indians back into the game.
Bacon went into the fifth inn hitless on the day with three walks in his last game. The frustrated slugger, for whatever reason he saw fit, switch hit and batted righty for his fourth at bat.
Bacon went yard and gave Hart life.
“I was not OK with him doing that,” said Pieper, “but I knew he was in a bad mood so I allowed it. It was appropriate against a left-handed pitcher and he hit a home run.”
The runs piled on in the final two innings as Valencia’s 6-4 lead diminished into an 11-6 deficit.
After Cummings forced the last out, the team dog-piled on the field celebrating their milestone.
“Coach Pieper just wanted us to give our maximum effort,” said Frithsmith. “He knew it was possible for us to lose games but wanted to see us fight through it.”
The bulk of the players will now move onto junior varsity and continue to develop in the same way Hart’s best players always have. For the majority of them, it all starts on the freshman team under Pieper.
The skipper has coached some of the current varsity team’s finest for at least a few games before varsity coach Jim Ozella gets wind of how great they are.
Pieper has coached Matt Quintanar, Chris Downs, Reagan Meyer, Isaiah Alvarado, Ryan De La Maza, Casey Hinajosa and Mike Rogozik, to name a few.
The freshman coach noted Meyer as someone who exemplifies what it means to be a Hart baseball player while also saying Rogozik has developed into one of the Foothill League’s best relievers.
As for Pieper, he’ll be sticking around the freshman team as long as he can. The head coach has turned down numerous offers to go coach higher-level baseball because of the love he has for the game and where he’s at now.
“I feel like the kids worked really hard and they put in the effort,” said Pieper. “As a coach, I want my kids to know, I want to work as hard as they do. The kids wanted to get better and they put in the effort.”