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HS baseball preview, 2019: New leagues move emphasis from arms to depth, fundamentals

The landscape of high school baseball in the Monterey Bay has shifted a bit since last season. So too has the importance of pitching and defense.

Yearly Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title contender St. Francis has moved over to the Pacific Coast Athletic League, and its absence in the now-six team league has left a vacuum that other Santa Cruz County squads will try to fill.

The Sharks’ shift to the three-tiered PCAL also changed the SCCAL’s structure of play. Every team in the league will play each other three times, and two of the three meetings will come on the same week.

What does that mean for the teams of the SCCAL? On paper, it means having an ace pitcher will no longer completely tilt the league title chase in one team’s favor. Depth, defense and fundamentals — more than ever — will be the determining factors over the course of league play.

“I like it,” said Aptos fourth-year coach Jason Biancardi. “It forces your team to play better baseball.”

Aptos will be the lone local team in the SCCAL. Monte Vista Christian, North Monterey County, Pajaro Valley, St. Francis and Watsonville will compete in the PCAL.

M.V.C. and St. Francis are in the top division, the Gabilan. Watsonville will play in the second-toughest division, the Mission. And N.M.C. and Pajaro Valley will duke it out in the Cypress.

The top two divisions carry eight teams, meaning every team will play three league games a week starting next week.

Because of the recent rain that pelted the Central Coast, some teams haven’t practiced more than a handful of times. That should make the first couple weeks of the league season ever more interesting.

“Playing three (league) games a week, you’ve got to be ready to play every time you step out there,” said Watsonville first-year coach James Garza. “The arms got to be ready every week, and your defense does, too…I think it’s going to come down to who can make the least mistakes — who plays clean baseball.”

Here is a look at every local baseball team:

APTOS

Rival St. Francis is no longer on the Mariners’ league slate — the two will meet in non-league play in mid-April — but the SCCAL will be as tough as ever.

Santa Cruz returns the majority of last year’s undefeated league champion team, including the SCCAL Player of the Year, Javy Felix, and Pitcher of the Year, Clayton Ray. Senior G.J. Hill, who like Felix (San Diego State) will play NCAA Division I baseball next year at Arizona State, also returns for his senior year.

“I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t their year,” Biancardi said. “This group has been hyped up since they were sophomores, maybe even before then… They’re going to be the favorites to win the league, but if we play baseball like we can, we’ll be just fine.”

The Mariners last year finished runner-up in the SCCAL with an 8-4 record. They completed the year at 18-9 overall, but were bounced in the first round of the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs.

This year’s group, which carries six seniors, has flushed everything about last year’s season. The leadership is different, and the approach at the plate and on the mound has changed, too.

“We feel like it’s a completely different team,” said junior catcher/centerfielder Jack Bollengier.

Pitcher David Reckers, now at NCAA D-I Cal State Bakersfield, is gone, but the Mariners replaced their ace with another. Senior David Eichhorn is considered the team’s top starter. The 6-foot-2 right-hander throws a fastball in the high-80s, a reliable curve and a splitter.

Eichhorn has not seen the field much over the last two years. He transferred to Aptos from M.V.C. after his sophomore season, and injured his hamstring and groin soon after he was cleared to play as a junior last spring.

“That was a bummer,” said Eichhorn, who will also play shortstop. “I had to do a whole bunch of physical therapy to get back…I’m feeling good now.”

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Aptos junior Luke Keaschall played well for the Mariners as a sophomore last season. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Along with Eichhorn, Aptos will also feature junior Jacob Mendoza, and sophomores Nathaniel Brouse and Fisher Johnson in its rotation. Seniors Alex Taylor and Shane Modena and junior Casey Bailey can also throw a few innings in a pinch.

“David is healthy and I think he’s going to have a big season, but I like our other guys, too,” Biancardi said. “We’re not lacking arms this year.”

The Mariners aren’t short on athleticism either, as the top of their lineup is packed with speed. Junior middle infielder Luke Keaschall will bat leadoff, Bollinger will follow him and senior outfielder Josh Barry hits in the No. 3 spot. The rest of the lineup is still being sorted out, but those three lightning quick players should take the weight off the shoulders of whoever follows.

“I think we can bang — everyone on this team can hit,” said Keaschall, who last season had 23 hits, 16 scored runs and 17 stolen bases.

M.V.C.

Coach Don Keathley is back at the helm after being asked to step down two years ago, and is as happy as could be. His team is radiating the same upbeat energy.

“The chemistry on this year’s team is incredible,” said senior pitcher/third baseman Jason Bettencourt. “I’m loving the bond with this group.”

Added senior pitcher/outfielder Thomas Avila: “There’s a genuine feeling that everyone on this year’s team likes each other. It’s really a family feel. It’s a good environment.”

The Mustangs are hoping that all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality can carry them to a strong league season and a CCS title. Their deep pool of talent should help them accomplish plenty, too.

Keathley carries 11 seniors and nine juniors on this year’s roster. Ten return from last year’s team, which finished 8-14 overall and placed last in the now-defunct Monterey Bay League Gabilan division under the leadership of coach Case Rigby.

M.V.C. has posted a losing record in each of the last six seasons. Keathley said that has to change this spring, but he knows it won’t be an easy task with his team playing in the PCAL-Gabilan against San Benito, Palma, Salinas, Christopher, Gilroy, Monterey and St. Francis.

“There’s no gimmies in this league,” said Keathley, who won a pair of league titles and made six postseason appearances during his first eight-year stint with M.V.C. “You’ve just got to be ready to play every game.”

The Mustangs learned that the hard way last spring. They lost their first four games of the league season, and ended their year with six consecutive losses.

“This is a new team,” said senior catcher Dominic Felice. “This isn’t the same Monte Vista Christian as last year.”

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Monte Vista Christian junior pitcher Aidan Lee works during a non-league game against Carmel in Watsonville. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

Felice is one of the Mustangs’ senior leaders, and will bat near the top of the lineup along with Bettencourt, who is batting .538 through four games this spring.

Seniors Matt Sanders, Harrison Zischke, Marshall Silva and Avila will also play big roles for M.V.C. All four can play multiple positions and pitch.

Tall junior pitchers Aidan Lee and John Corea bolster Keathley’s rotation and will most likely be his No. 1 and 2 starters, respectively. Lee, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, throws a fastball in the mid-80s and a nasty slider.

“He’s the real deal,” Bettencourt said.

Lee will also bat at the heart of the lineup along with junior catcher/designated hitter Nate Renggli. Juniors Roberto Nunez, Luke Brothers, Tyler Keenan and Quinn Alexander also strengthen M.V.C.’s lineup

“Everybody rakes,” Lee said. “You can’t just work around one guy.”

N.M.C.

The Condors are now in year three under coach Alex Rivera, and are projected to be contenders in the PCAL-Cypress, which features Gonzales, Greenfield, Pajaro Valley, Seaside, Stevenson and Trinity Christian.

Rivera said his senior-heavy squad felt a bit slighted when it was placed in the league’s lower division despite scoring wins over Seaside, Alvarez and Watsonville last season — three teams that finished in the top half of the MBL-Pacific.

“It was kind of a slap in the face to our guys but we can’t whine about it,” Rivera said. “Now we have to go prove that we can play. Our guys are playing with a chip on their shoulders.”

Seniors A.J. Valdez and Jordan Larva and junior Sebastian Ramirez have stepped up as the team’s leaders.

Valdez, a four-year varsity starter, is expected to split time at catcher and third base, and can also play middle infielder in a pinch. Larva is a tough 5-foot-6 left-handed pitcher with a fastball, curve and changeup in his repertoire. And Ramirez will once again be the team’s starting shortstop and vocal leader.

N.M.C. has 16 players on its roster, and half of them are seniors.

Six-foot-1 sophomore pitcher Willie Bravo, Rivera said, will lead the team into the future.

“I’m blessed with seniors this year,” Rivera said. “I like where we’re at right now, and we’re continuing to get better.”

PAJARO VALLEY

Coach Matt Manfre is heading into his fourth season with the Grizzlies, who last year ended a 131-game losing streak against league foes in a stunning win over cross-city rival Watsonville. But that shocker stood as the team’s lone league win of a 1-17 season in the MBL-Pacific.

Now in the PCAL-Cypress, Pajaro Valley could see a big jump in its win total.

ST. FRANCIS

Coach Kenny Nakagawa’s Sharks are as young as they’ve ever been after graduating a standout eight-player class, which featured the all-league pitcher-catcher duo of Chase Watkins and Derric Estrada-Haro.

St. Francis suffered even more attrition when seniors Bobby Rigor and Andrew Seymour decided not to play baseball this spring.

“We’re a small school, so it hurts whenever we lose anyone,” Nakagawa said, “but losing those two guys hurts us a lot.”

In all, the Sharks have only three players back from last year’s CCS D-III finalist team: C.J. Gomez, Julian Mendoza and Domenic Cordova.

All three are seniors that will have to play their best baseball in order for this year’s youthful group to compete amongst the best in the PCAL-G.

“We don’t know what everyone’s capable of right now, and that’s good in a sense,” Gomez said. “We’re feeling each other out and we’re not putting anyone above the team.”

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St. Francis senior pitcher C.J. Gomez was an All-SCCAL First Team selection last spring. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Gomez earned all-league recognition as a pitcher last season, and figures to be the Sharks’ top pitcher this spring. The 6-foot-2 right-hander throws a fast ball in the mid-80s, a curve and a change up.

Cordova, a 6-foot-1, right-hander who transferred from powerhouse St. Francis-Mountain View after his sophomore season, will also be a key cog in the Sharks’ rotation.

Mendoza starred on defense for St. Francis as a junior following a transfer from M.V.C. and is expected to be one of the top shortstops in the PCAL-G this spring. The speedy 5-foot-9 middle infielder wants to improve at the plate after hitting .284 with 12 RBI, four doubles and a triple last season.

“We have a lot of contact hitters throughout our lineup, so our base running is going to be one of our biggest strengths this year,” said Mendoza, who stole eight bags last season. “Being aggressive and staying aggressive throughout the whole game — keeping the energy up — I think that’s what’s going to help us a lot this year.”

The Sharks might have lost a pair of key seniors, but Nakagawa was pleasantly surprised to see senior Joseph Ramirez, a starter for the school’s football and basketball teams, return to the diamond after taking a season off. The three-sport athlete is starting in the outfield.

“He’s a guy that does everything the right way,” Nakagawa said of Ramirez. “His leadership is great for our young guys.”

Dominic Anderson-Nakagawa is one of only two juniors on the team, and will step in as the starting catcher. 

Freshmen Dez Litel, Seth Vasquez and Miles Guardino and sophomores Isaiah Gonzalez, Ruben Castaneda, Brandon George and JoJo Diaz are all expected to start for the Sharks.

“We’re young, but all of our young guys have a good baseball IQ for being so young,” Nakagawa said. “Talent-wise, I think we’re going to be very competitive.”

WATSONVILLE

The Wildcatz have a new coach. A new league, too.

Former assistant James Garza, who last season stepped in as interim coach after Leroy Dozal was fired five games into his first year with the program, is now the lead man who will be tasked with keeping a young Watsonville team competitive in what is expected to be a tough league from top to bottom.

In the Mission division, Watsonville will play against Alisal, Alvarez, Carmel, King City, North Salinas, Pacific Grove and Soledad. Five of those teams made the playoffs last year, two (Alisal and Soledad) are fresh off winning league titles and one (Soledad) was a CCS finalist last season.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said Watsonville senior catcher/pitcher Dylan Vargas, “but we like to compete.”

Vargas is one of six seniors, four of which return from last season. Pitcher/infielder Jeremy Diaz and outfielders James Sandoval and Keanu Duarte also return.

Diaz will bat leadoff, and is slotted as the team’s starting shortstop when he’s not on the mound. The 5-foot-7 Wildcat is a solid junkballer, throwing a fastball, curve, changeup and knuckle ball.

“I think we all want to make playoffs,” Diaz said. “Last year didn’t go like we wanted it to.”

Watsonville finished 10-14 overall and placed fourth in the MBL-Pacific. The Wildcatz won seven straight league games after Garza took over, but missed the playoffs after losing seven of their final eight.

“We learned a lot from last year, and we want to make this year better,” Diaz said.

Having Sandoval back should help their cause. The fleet-footed outfielder missed all of last season with a broken foot, and also had to sit out his sophomore year with a torn labrum.

Now healthy, Sandoval gives the ‘Catz another good glove and a boost of speed in the lineup behind Diaz at No. 2.

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Watsonville senior James Sandoval is finally healthy and ready to play a big role for the Wildcatz. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

“I’ll play wherever Garza needs me,” Sandoval said. “I can play pretty much any position if I have to.”

Diaz and Sandoval will set the table for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Vargas, who will try to make up for the loss of all-league cleanup hitter Ryan Rivera.

Six-foot-1, 200-pound junior Ryan Itamura also brings a big bat to the lineup.

“Ryan was a big part of our offense last year,” Vargas said. “We all have to step up to replace his offense.”

Garza would like to have Vargas as his No. 1 pitcher, but his value from behind the dish could keep him off the mound. If he does toe the rubber this season, Vargas will throw a fastball, curve and changeup with solid placement.

Duarte will also pitch, as will sophomores Jared Martinez, Frankie Guzman and Donovan Mendoza.

•••

PLAYERS TO WATCH

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James Sandoval (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Outfielder

Why he’ll be great >> Might be the Wildcatz’s best all-around athlete and is eager to show it after missing the last two seasons with injuries

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Dylan Vargas (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Catcher/pitcher

Why he’ll be great >> One of the few power hitters in the Wildcatz’s lineup this season, Vargas will also serve as the team’s ace pitcher

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Jeremy Diaz (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Infielder/pitcher

Why he’ll be great >> Does not carry much bulk, but is a tough out at the plate with some nasty junk on the mound

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David Eichhorn (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Pitcher/shortstop

Why he’ll be great >> Finally healthy, Eichhorn is expected to be the Mariners’ go-to thrower

Jack_Bollinger_Aptos_Mug_2019

Jack Bollengier (Jr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Catcher/outfielder

Why he’ll be great >> Hit five doubles and a triple last spring, and will be one of the Mariners’ top sluggers this season

Luke_Keaschall_Aptos_mug_2019

Luke Keaschall (Jr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Infielder

Why he’ll be great >> With speed and athleticism to burn, Keaschall is a walking base hit with the bat in his hands

Aidan_lee_MVC_Baseball_2019_Mug

Aidan Lee (Jr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Pitcher/infielder

Why he’ll be great >> The hard-throwing, 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher will be one of several arms at the Mustangs’ disposal

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Dominic Felice (Sr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Catcher

Why he’ll be great >> A leader who understands the landscape of the PCAL Gabilan division

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Jason Bettencourt (Sr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Infielder

Why he’ll be great >> Can hit for contact or power as the Mustangs’ leadoff hitter and is a sure glove on defense

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Thomas Avila (Sr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Pitcher/infielder

Why he’ll be great >> A team-first player who can play multiple positions, start a game on the mound or come out of the bullpen

 

CJ_Gomez_SF_Baseball_mug_2019

C.J. Gomez (Sr.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Pitcher/Infielder

Why he’ll be great >> Armed with a mid-80s fastball and a loopy curve, Gomez gives the Sharks a chance to win whenever he’s on the mound

Julian_Mendoza_SF_Baseball_Mug_2019

Julian Mendoza (Sr.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Infielder

Why he’ll be great >> A tough shortstop who can change the course of a game with his defense or his bat

•••

Editor’s note: This article will publish in the March 8 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.

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