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Hart baseball secures 36th league title 

Hart baseball celebrates its 36th league championship. Photo Courtesy of Cole Franquiz Photography.
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Hart baseball coach Jim Ozella had the nail gun ready to go on Thursday.  

Ozella and the team made the latest addition to the Hart baseball league championship wall, adding the 2024 plaque after defeating the Canyon Cowboys 13-0 in the skipper’s final regular-season home game to win the outright Foothill League championship.  

Ozella has made countless contributions to high school baseball and has now led the Indians’ program to nine Foothill League titles. 

The game was also the final regular-season home game for longtime varsity stars Troy Cooper, Brayden Jefferis, Ryan De La Maza and Taj Brar. 

Even with so much on the line on Thursday, as the Indians needed a win to secure an outright league title, Hart came ready to play. 

Ozella took the field for one last regular-season game but was all business as usual. 

“Not really, I’m past that now,” Ozella said in a phone interview when asked if taking the field felt any different. “I want what’s best for my kids. I have to go into games concentrated on what we’re doing. It’s not like I’ve been distracted. I know the situation and I know now that every game could be a last game and I can handle that, I’m a big boy. I just don’t want to let that happen to my guys. So I’m trying to coach the best I can.” 

Troy Cooper throws a shutout five innings against Canyon. Photo Courtesy of Cole Franquiz Photography.

Jefferis and Brar both finished 2-for-3 in their shortened days, while Cooper shut out Canyon in his five innings on the hill. The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo commit finished his senior day with just two hits and four strikeouts. 

“I felt great but it was a little bittersweet,” Jefferis said via text message. “You try not to think about it too much, so I was just trying to treat it like any other game and just go out there and take care of business. It’s easy to get caught up in the senior day and league champs and all of that but I tried not to focus much on it during the game and just go out there and have fun one last time.”  

Hart piled on the runs throughout the game, with four-run innings in both the second and fourth. 

Brar made it 8-0 with an RBI double in the fourth.  

The Indian juniors also were ready to get a taste of a title. Junior Michael Hogen finished the day 2-for-2 while outfielder Hayden Rhodes fired out a two-run homer to right field to make it 13-0. 

De La Maza added his share of dingers on Tuesday, when the catcher went yard twice in a 9-4 win at Canyon that secured at least a share of the league title. The catcher also sparked a 2-4 double play after a diving catch for a bunt and throwing out a Cowboys base runner heading for second on Thursday.

The save wasn’t on the line but senior closer Ian Edwards still came in and preserved the shutout to push Hart to victory. 

Hart senior Ian Edwards pitches against Canyon. Photo Courtesy of Cole Franquiz Photography.

Edwards shined as the Indians’ submarine closer but didn’t originally ever plan on throwing side-arm. Edwards had solid stuff throwing over the top, but Ozella encouraged his senior to try throwing side-arm last year.  

The result: a 0.79 ERA and 39 strikeouts in Edwards’ monster senior season. 

Jefferis then joined his third league-championship dog pile on the field. Hart celebrated by giving their retiring coach a Gatorade bath and having a huge water gun fight with Ozella and the coaches on the field. 

“It was awesome and definitely my favorite (celebration), with being my last year and a lot of my close friends’ last years,” Jefferis said. “The water gun fight was not something I was expecting but it was super fun and funny seeing our coaches run around with them shooting us because none of us knew they would have them. It was a lot of fun and I’ll never forget that.” 

Hart storms the field after winning the 2024 Foothill League championship. Photo Courtesy of Cole Franquiz Photography.

The Indians swept every league opponent except one as the team fell in two straight games to Saugus last month. Ozella knew the league title could still be in his team’s reach and challenged his team to win their next six games in a row. Hart dug in and found ways to sweep its season series against West Ranch, Castaic and Canyon. 

“We’re really playing pretty well right now and we’re hitting better than we did earlier in the year,” Ozella said. “I really think we’re putting together some offense now and giving our pitcher some leeway, which is always helpful.” 

Hart has been challenged all season with tough opponents in league and in the section. Cooper believes these games, among other challenges, have sharpened the team into what it is now.  

“Several of us overcame challenges this year. We’ve adjusted and learned and that’s what makes our team so great,” Cooper said. “We’re put in these situations and we have the motivation and the mindset that we’re gonna get through this. We know we’re gonna get through this because we work hard and we care about baseball.” 

One loss would’ve entailed a three-way tie for the Foothill League crown, which Hart had no intention of sharing in their coach’s final season. 

While the title wasn’t official and remained up in their air until the final week of play, Cooper knew his team had the makings of a league championship team well before the season. 

“Honestly, we could kind of tell during summer ball when our team got together,” Cooper said. “We could see things potentially line up with how hitters were hitting and we have big arms. So it was just kind of like, ‘OK, this is looking good.’ Then we rolled into fall ball and you could really see the improvement.” 

Hart now advances back into the Division 2 playoffs with hopes of sending Ozella off with his first-ever sectional title. 

The Indians sit at fifth in the CIF polls and will find out where their postseason journey begins on Monday, when brackets are published. 

“Things are going right now,” Cooper said. “Our energy is why we took the West Ranch game. As one of the team leaders, my job is to just go in and see if I can go out there and throw zeros. I know 100% they’re just gonna pick me up and get at least two or three on the board for me and that’s all our pitching staff needs. So if they can do that and play great defense, then I think we could win the whole thing. Why not?” 

Hayden Rhodes rounds third after hitting a two-run home run against Canyon. Photo Courtesy of Cole Franquiz Photography.

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