By Justin Vigil-Zuniga, Tyler Wainfeld and Trevor Morgan
Signal Staff Writers
Baseball is officially back in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Hart is aiming for its third straight league title. West Ranch and Saugus are looking to elongate their playoff streaks. Castaic, Canyon and Golden Valley are looking to jump into the top of the pack in what’s sure to be another wild year of Foothill League play.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2023 season:
Young Hart team looking for three-peat
No one is more capable of pumping out a Foothill League- and CIF-contending team quite like Hart coach Jim Ozella. This year, the skipper will aim to take the youngest team he’s ever coached, with only six seniors, back to the top of the Foothill League and into the Division 1 playoffs.
The Indians are the only Division 1 program in the area but will have plenty of work in front of them to reach the playoffs.
“We’ve been making progress,” Ozella said. “I think our young guys are coming to the realization that there’s a certain way to play the game. You’ve got to elevate your game a little bit, keep making improvements, and we’ve been doing that. Freshmen and sophomores are still freshmen and sophomores, and are going to make some mistakes, but we’ll try to minimize those. We’ll try and minimize those mistakes and can keep making improvements. We do that well, I think we’ll be just fine.”
Hart returns a bulk of talent to the mound including Troy Cooper, Sean Elsee, Mike Rogozik and Chris Downs. Cooper led the returners in 2022 with a 2.26 ERA and 28 strikeouts over 33.1 innings of work.
At the plate, the Indians will rely on shortstop Brayden Jefferis, catcher Ryan De La Maza and senior Zachary Kukreja. Jeffris and De La Maza both finished last season just under the .300 mark while Kukreja batted .550 off the bench.
Ozella will also hope to see juniors Taj Brar and Alex Howard keep making strides and bolster an offense with untapped potential.
Hart has lost just two Foothill League games over the previous two seasons. The team is off to another solid start to the season with all eyes on the three-peat.
The Indians open up league play Wednesday, March 15, at Golden Valley.
Valencia riding high into regular season
The Vikings seemingly still have momentum that dates back to last season. Valencia finished as Foothill League runners-up before a deep playoff run that ended in the CIF quarterfinals. The team has had a strong offseason and will look to retake the league crown for the first time in four years.
Second-year head coach Brade Meza returns to Valencia for the 2023 season. Meza coached arguably the best offense in the area in his first year and will aim for the same mark in year two.
The team graduated a bulk of talent including one of the state’s home run leaders in Jose Mariano. However, Meza is optimistic about his offense, which includes an even mix of returners and newcomers. Opponents can expect more strong seasons at the plate from Lance Mittleman, Aiden Voyles and Noah Jaquez.
“The expectation is always to hit,” Meza said. “I think this year we’ll be a little more active on the basepaths. We don’t have the big bopper like last year, losing that guy’s a big deal. We’ll be good offensively but I don’t think we’ll be bopping 15 home runs.”
Ricky Ojeda and Matthew Sherwood return to the mound for Valencia. The lefty Ojeda posted a 1.18 ERA in 23 innings of work through 13 appearances in 2022. The 6-foot, 5-inch Sherwood tallied 31 Ks in 35 innings last year.
The Vikings fell just one game short of a league crown, but will look to return the title to Valencia.
Revamped Wildcats aim for consistent season
Consistency was the word that West Ranch baseball third-year head coach Ryan Lindgreen used to describe what he hopes to see from the Wildcats in the upcoming season.
West Ranch (15-14, 9-3) finished tied for second with Valencia in the Foothill League last season, just two games behind Hart for the league title. Lindgreen believes that with a little more consistency, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats could be a contender in both the league and the Division 2 playoffs despite losing 11 seniors.
“Hopefully, we can be a little more consistent on the defensive side of the ball,” Lindgreen said. “Last year, that was an obstacle that we kind of fought through consistently. So, hopefully we’re a little bit better there and we can then let our pitchers and hitters have a better chance to kind of keep us in the game.”
Pitching is the biggest strength that Lindgreen thinks his team can rely on. Junior Jackson Banuelos returns as the Foothill League Pitcher of the Year after recording a 1.43 ERA and 51 strikeouts against just 13 walks in 54 innings pitched last year.
“We’re hoping that Jackson will be able to continue making progress and have an even better year this year than last year,” Lindgreen said. “So, things will start a lot with him.”
The Wildcats can also lean on a few returning hitters that should provide some thump. Senior Ty DePerno racked up 29 hits last year, the most of any returner. He also had 29 RBIs, eight doubles and two home runs. Senior Josef Brosche (21 hits, 14 RBIs, nine stolen bases) and senior Bret Potter (24 hits, seven doubles, eight stolen bases) are also hitters to watch.
“Between Ty DePerno and Bret Potter and Josef Brosche,” Lindgreen said, “all of these guys have a ton of Foothill League experience, they’re returning starters from past years, and we need them to have big years and we need to rely upon them. And I think they’ll be able to do it.”
West Ranch did add a few players who weren’t on last year’s team, as well as some players who only played small roles. Senior Drew Greenburg is a pitcher who comes back after recovering from a torn ACL. Seniors Matt Lloyd and Ryan Shalkevich are both committed to play collegiately at The Master’s University, with the former an outfielder and the latter an outfielder and a pitcher. Senior Shane Buchbinder and junior Ben Cushnie are two more pitchers to add some depth.
Sophomore Landon Hu comes up and is projected to be the team’s starting shortstop after taking over the second-base job as a freshman last year. Juniors Aidan Buntich (first base) and Bret Ishikawa (second base) should also be key contributors for the Wildcats.
“We have some young hitters that are excited to go prove themselves,” Lindgreen said. “But when you have the reigning Pitcher of the Year on your team, you feel like at least once a week, he’s going to be able to go out there and give us a good chance to win. And that really allows the other pitchers to go perform well in the roles that they’ve been earning over the last few months. So, we’re hoping that our pitching is going to be a strength.”
West Ranch baseball is 5-3 with just one home game thus far ahead of Foothill League play.
New-look Saugus putting pieces together for another playoff run
The Centurions will be nearly a whole-new team this season after Saugus graduated 18 seniors in 2022. Head coach Carl Grissom is excited for the opportunity to work harder with just a few guys having established roles going into the season.
Erik Polanco and Zach Plasschaert have been established varsity players for a few years now. Grissom will count on the two at the plate, on the right-side of the infield and for senior leadership.
“I’m very thankful that those two are back,” Grissom said. “They take a lot of pressure off me. They can manage the ship and let these guys know this is how we do things and just get it done. They have just been great and I’m hoping for big years for them.”
On the other side of the infield, expect Justin Rankin to spend time at third, while Derek Hughes will anchor at shortstop. Jason Zepeda will have big shoes to fill behind the plate as the team’s catcher.
TJ Cataldi is another senior leader who will spend a lot of time on the mound this season. Cataldi will lead the young pitching staff that Grissom has seen learn to pound the zone. The skipper noted the huge difference in patience at the plate between junior varsity and varsity, and the Centurion pitchers are coming along nicely.
Cataldi will be in center field when he’s not pitching. Grissom has seen a lot of talent in the outfield but freshman Matt Carta may be a name to keep an eye on at Saugus.
The goal will always be: Win league but if all else fails, find a way into the playoffs, and the Centurions have done just that for the last three seasons.
Saugus opens up league play on Wednesday, March 8, at Valencia.
Castaic looking to take next step in second season
Castaic baseball had an admirable first varsity season in 2022, going 9-16 and 5-8 in the Foothill League. The Coyotes narrowly missed out on fourth place in the league and an automatic playoff berth, finishing a game behind Saugus.
Darrell Davis, entering his second season in charge of the program, believes that his team, returning the entirety of its roster and adding a few new pieces for 2023, should be firmly in the hunt for the Division 6 postseason.
“We feel pretty good about our team,” Davis said. “Basically almost our whole starting lineup is all back and we added some depth to it.”
Castaic has 14 seniors and 24 total players on the roster, many of them coming back from last year’s squad. Seniors Aaron Gonzalez (third base, pitcher, catcher), Matthew Airhart (outfield, pitcher), Joji Sakata (outfield, first base, pitcher) and Kyler Freude (pitcher, first base) are all leaders Davis will be leaning on.
The Coyotes have been preparing by both hosting some top teams from Southern California (and beyond) and traveling to face other big-name schools. Just in the past month, Castaic has beaten Shadow Ridge, the 4A state champions in Nevada, and the Nevada state finalist, Legacy High School, while also getting a chance to play JSerra Catholic out of Orange County, one of the top teams annually in the Southern Section.
“We feel that we can we can compete and play with anyone,” Davis said.
There are a few additions to this year’s squad, notably two transfers from within the Foothill League in senior Will Stanley, a 6-foot-3 lefty first baseman from Valencia, and junior Jack Teoli, a catcher from Hart, who will have to sit out 30 days due to CIF rules.
The other addition that Davis is excited for is 6-foot-4 junior Jack Raber, who grew up playing soccer but made the change to pitching last year as a sophomore.
“We brought him up [during the winter] and he’s just been dominating on the mound,” Davis said. “He’s gonna be another sleeper.”
Pitching is the key for Davis and the Coyotes. He thinks that there are seven or eight players he can call on at any time to get the job done on the mound.
“That was one of our problems, I think, last year that kind of hurt us, was our relief pitching,” Davis said. “I think if we would have done better with that, we had a chance, we would have been in the playoffs last year.”
Castaic baseball is off to a 4-2-1 start to the season as Foothill League play starts this week.
Canyon aims to end playoff drought
Canyon has fallen on some rough times but is aiming to jump out of the hole this season.
First-year head coach Zach Newman is the only new coach entering the Foothill League and will aim to snap Canyon’s 10-year playoff drought.
Newman made team camaraderie his No. 1 priority since the start and has seen his group of players grow into a team in his short time as a Cowboy skipper.
Pablo Rodriguez returns to the Green Machine for his senior year. Newman noted Rodriguez as the most dedicated kid on and off the field he’s ever seen. The senior will be a plus for Canyon everywhere with his work at the plate, in the outfield, on the mound and as a leader in the dugout.
Newman will also rely heavily on Jacob Mourthi, Austin Hernandez, Benny Santos and Tsukasa Ozaki. Hernandez has one of the bigger arms at third base and on the mound. Ozaki and Mourthi will also both be key at the plate and on the bump.
Santos is a sophomore at second but could be a standout offensively along with freshman first baseman Brody Bayliss. Junior left-handed pitcher Warren Goenner has also impressed his coach with his arm on the mound.
Canyon will compete but regardless of how the season goes, Newman is pleased having his players grow as one team.
“If we win or lose all the games, the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that there were a bunch of individuals doing their thing,” Newman said. “Now there’s 14 kids that are one team and that can’t be taken away from them no matter what happens.”
The Cowboys have had a split preseason and will open up with a big test right away in a league series with West Ranch.
Golden Valley looking to turn things around after a rough season
Adrian Rios said his freshman year as head coach for Golden Valley was difficult, with the team only winning one league game last season.
Having been thrown “into the fire” after Golden Valley’s previous coach left two months before the season began, he knew it was going to be a challenge for the team to adjust.
“We lost a lot of close games last season, mainly because I don’t think we were focused enough at times,” said Rios. “I think that the tradition at Golden Valley has been, ‘Hey, we play great for a couple innings and then all of a sudden the demons start coming in.’”
Team confidence was low throughout the season, but bringing that confidence back up and boosting morale seem to be at the forefront of Rios’ strategy heading into his sophomore season.
One example of this was during last season’s game against John H. Francis Polytechnic Senior High School. The game entered extra innings tied at 5-5, but a Grizzlies reliever, brought in during the 10th inning, gave up five runs. Rios said his team, at that moment, accepted defeat.
“They were already beat. They already knew that, we’re the Washington Generals and the Harlem Globetrotters are gonna beat us right now. And I was just looking at them, and they were defeated already,” said Rios. “We ended up winning the game and scored six runs in the bottom of the 10th, and won the game.”
Rios said baseball is realizing that you’re never out of the game, things can change quickly and that you can always compete — a lesson he plans to hammer in this season. Once this is established, only then can you start to rebuild a team’s fundamentals.
However, this can only come if players feel like there’s a sense of stability in a program — something Rios said Golden Valley is lacking and that needs to change.
“It’s just being this stability that hasn’t been there… So, I think that just being the stability and just [them] knowing that I’m going to be there and being the face of the program and be there with our youngsters and our older kids is a big thing,” said Rios.
Once that mentality is established, Rios said pitching, baserunning, defense and situational awareness at the plate are among the fundamentals the team is going to focus on.
Last season, the Grizzlies posted a team 5.85 ERA, 60 stolen bases, had a .866 fielding percentage — with a notable above-average number of double plays turned (17), and .265 batting average.
Confident in his pitching depth, Rios said the recent $20,000 investment into new batting cages should help improve offense.
“My mindset going in there is that we’re out here to play some baseball and let them know that we’ve got a plan,” said Rios. “We’re not going to roll over. We’re going to be competitive. I’ve got other guys that I can pull in, a deeper lineup than I probably have ever had, more pitchers than I’ve ever had and the best facilities in the Foothill League, which is a big thing.”
Golden Valley’s first league game is set for Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at Castaic High School. The team enters league 7-0, winning every non-league game so far.
Trinity hoping to expand on first league title
Trinity Classical Academy is coming off its first league title in program history, and Knights head coach Trevor Brown can’t wait to see how his squad follows that up.
“We have a lot of returning players from last year. We only lost two seniors,” Brown said. “So, I think we’re going to have a really strong program this year and I’m hoping to make a strong push for winning league again and, hopefully, making a pretty solid playoff run.”
The Knights (20-7, 13-1) return a plethora of starters from last year’s team, including seniors Brandon Chase, Gabe Chavez, Anderson Howell, Rocco Izzo and Nick Parrinello. Chase led the team with 38 hits and 14 doubles, while Izzo had a team-leading 27 RBIs and 34 runs scored, getting on base more than 58% of the time.
Offense is what Brown thinks Trinity will excel at. The team put up more than nine runs per game last season.
“I think we have a lot of really good bats this year,” Brown said. “We’re definitely gonna rely on them to score a lot of runs and hopefully give the younger guys a little bit of breathing room and see if we can get them through some innings.”
Those younger guys that Brown mentioned are sophomores Noah Visconti and John Carlson. The latter had 39 strikeouts and a 3.27 ERA last year, while Visconti struck out nine in 9.2 innings. Those two are projected to handle the bulk of the innings, with Chase and senior Sam Robertson handling the relief duties.
“We have a couple of other guys that might pick up some middle innings, but that’s who I perceive to get the majority of the innings,” Brown said. “Hopefully, those younger sophomores can take us pretty deep into games and make it easier on those relief guys.”
Success for Trinity is retaining the Heritage League title, Brown said, but his hopes for the season are bigger than that. He thinks that the Knights are primed to make a deep run in the CIF postseason.
“Ultimately, our first goal is to win league,” Brown said. “Our second goal is that we’ll try to change our sights and set our sights more on a CIF push and getting deeper into playoffs.”
Trinity baseball is 1-3 on the young season and starts Heritage League play this week.
SCCS shows strength in small numbers
Santa Clarita Christian School did not perform well by most metrics last season and was only able to amass four wins, finishing the season with a 4-12 record.
While pitching and defense may be the old adage, that can be difficult to do when you only have one starting pitcher and one reliever — which was the case for SCCS last season.
“We’re really excited for this year. You know, SCCS is a small school and we’ve lost a handful of ballplayers over the past couple of years to bigger public schools,” said Wyatt Waldron, head coach for SCCS. “I’m happy for everybody’s decisions and what they decide to do, but I’m hoping, hopefully this season’s a little bit better.”
Waldron has quite the challenge ahead of him this season, having only nine players total on the roster: No seniors, one junior, and the rest being sophomores and freshmen.
“We have a super young team, just trying to teach them the game, develop their game, their baseball IQ and that’s kind of been the focus of the season,” said Waldron. “We got a lot of players that are playing different positions and we’re trying to teach them the roles and responsibilities of those spots, which is a task itself.”
There are some saving graces, however, with speed being one of them. While only tallying a team average of .230, they did have an above-average 70 stolen bases.
Pitching was a struggle last season, with the team posting up a 13.62 ERA. But, Waldron said this season is looking like it will be an improvement.
“Our pitching is definitely going to be an advantage compared to last year, and then our speed and just overall athleticism on the team,” said Waldron. “I think this year is a huge difference from last year.”
SCCS is scheduled to play its first league game against Desert Christian on Tuesday, March 14, at Desert Christian in Lancaster at 6 p.m.