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2015 BASEBALL PREVIEW: Artesia, Cerritos anticipate turnaround seasons, Gahr faces another tough campaign

By Loren Kopff

Don’t laugh now but the Artesia and Cerritos baseball teams, stuck in the bottom half of the Suburban League for over five years, are talking playoffs and even league championship for this season. Gahr is still the area’s top team but has even a tougher schedule to get through. John Glenn returns probably the best one-two pitching combinations in the Suburban League while Norwalk, in a recurring theme, has yet another new coach. Valley Christian hopes for a stronger start to the season.

Returning players in italics

ARTESIA PIONEERS

7-19 overall last season, 3-9 in the Suburban League, fifth place

Head coach: Michael Gaoghagan (13th season, 118-195-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 37-90

Last time made the playoffs: 2007

Key losses: Tyler Brown, Diego Castaneda, Osbiel Montano, Ivan Rosales, Jesus Vigil

Projected lineup:

P-Abel Flores (SR)/Anthony Larson (JR)/David Licea (SO)/David Montano (SR)/Jose Rivera (SR)/Javier Vasquez (SR)

C-Allen Castro (FR)/Montano

1B-Max Anderson/Nathan Guerrero (JR)/Luis Romero (SR)

2B-Robert Aragon (FR)/Marcus Johnson (SR)

3B-Flores/Larson

SS-Oscar Barragan (SO)/Vasquez

OF-Rivera/Isiah Soto (SO)/David Vasquez (FR)

OF-Eric Marquez (SO)/Matt Munoz (SR)

OF-Justin Martinez (SR)/Carlos Moreno (SR)

Since Artesia’s last trip to the playoffs, head coach Mike Gaoghagan has seen his teams finish in fifth place three times, sixth place once and last place twice. But in 2015, the Pioneers just might have the team that not only goes to the playoffs, but might take home a league crown for the first time since 2003, Gaoghagan’s first season at Artesia.

“We were just a little bit short; close but no cigar,” Gaoghagan said of the past. “I just think the last couple of years we’ve been close but not quite there yet. The last week [of last season] was just disastrous. We just imploded on ourselves. But that was last year; I don’t even care about that.”

Last season, the Pioneers were outscored by Bellflower 33-4 during the last week of the season, just two weeks after falling to Mayfair 1-0. But Artesia has more depth this season and will carry roughly 20 players on the team. Gaoghagan says he hasn’t had this much depth in a long time.

Senior pitcher Javier Vasquez won two games last season and went the distance both times but senior Jose Rivera and junior Anthony Larson are slated to be the top two pitchers in 2015. Senior Matt Munoz moves from shortstop to center field while senior second baseman Marcus Johnson is a solid infielder. The outfield is unproven but if the experienced players gel with the newcomers, there’s no reason why Artesia can’t end its playoff drought.

“I would assume that we would win league,” Gaoghagan predicted. “That’s my guess. I think that we should win league. I think in the years past, we thought that we should contend; we have a shot of playoffs. But this year, we should be able to make playoffs and I think we can actually have a shot of winning league.”

CERRITOS DONS

9-18 overall, 2-10 in the Suburban League, sixth place

Head coach: Scott Parsonage (second season, 9-18)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 34-87

Last time made the playoffs: 1998

Key losses: Eugene Chang, Juan Rodriguez, Dylan Statham

Projected lineup:

P-Tyler Beyer (JR)/Jacob Carter (SR)/Justin Fujii (SR)/Jason Prieto-Burnham (JR)/Ian Rosenberg (SR)

C-Kyle Suezaki (JR)

1B-Fujii

2B-Delvan Gomez (FR)

3B-Saul Ruvalcaba (JR)

SS-Aaron Hinds (SR)/Suezaki

OF-Carter/Nick Sur (JR)

OF-Beyer

OF-Carter/Prieto-Burnham

Last season, head coach Scott Parsonage and his co-head coach Brooks Walling began the process of changing the culture of Cerritos High baseball. This season could be a breakthrough one for the Dons who are seeking their first non-losing season since 1998, which was also the last time they went to the playoffs.

“Changing the mindset of the kids was definitely the largest positive out of the whole year and it’s continuing to happen even more this year,” Parsonage said. “The team we have this year…we’re a completely different ball club. We’re definitely improved. Everybody has bought into the program. We have 16 guys and all 16 guys…we’re in the same direction.”

So how does Cerritos improve from a nine-win season, the most since going 9-15-1 in 2006? For starters, the pitching staff just got better with juniors Tyler Beyer, a transfer from Lakewood and Jason Prieto-Burnham, a transfer from Huntington Beach. Those two plus the experience of seniors Jacob Carter and Ian Rosenberg should leave Cerritos with one of the best, if not the best pitching staffs of the Suburban League.

Junior Saul Ruvalcaba moves from second base to third base while junior Nick Sur from third base to left field. Parsonage says his outfield, which is very fast, is the best in the league and one of the best in the area.

Since 2009, the Dons had traded sixth and seventh place finishes. Expect that trend to end this season as Cerritos is already off to a 6-0 start with a doubleheader sweep over Costa Mesa and four wins in the Newport Elks Tournament. The true test will come in the last two weeks of March when the Dons face Mayfair and La Mirada to begin the league season.

“I know La Mirada is down a little and a lot of teams in the league are down,” Parsonage said. “I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t count us out of anything. I’m not going to go farther in stating [that we’ll win league]. But I really think we have a great shot of battling for a playoff spot this year.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

22-11-1 overall last season, 7-3 in the San Gabriel Valley League, tied for second place, lost to Redondo Union 3-2 in the Division III quarterfinals

Head coach: Gerardo Perez (11th season, 197-97-2)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 102-48-1

Last time missed the playoffs: 1998

Key losses: George Castillo, Jaime Estrada, Valentin Flores, Nick Guerra, Octavio Lara, Adrian Poot,

Projected lineup:

P-Joel Casillas (SO)/Chris Corral (JR)/Josh Hailey (SO)/Anthony Moreno (SO)/Paul Versteeg (SR)

C-David Balboa (JR)/Victor Salazar (JR)

1B-Rafael Alvarez (SR)/Hailey

2B-Jesus Salazar (JR)

3B-Joe Dressel (SR)

SS-Michael Perez (FR)

OF-Albert Avila (SR)

OF-Oscar Carvajal (JR)/Versteeg

OF-Leotis Johnson (SR)

Another strong season that included one of the toughest non-league schedules Gahr has ever seen ended in a quarterfinal loss for the second straight season. Gahr went 4-1 in the Newport Elks Tournament and in the Redondo Tournament and swept a doubleheader against Long Beach Poly at Blair Field among its victories. But to repeat the same success, the Gladiators will be a tad bit thinner in the offensive power department than in the previous seasons despite returning eight experienced position players.

“Last year’s season was an extension of the 2013 season with [Kevin Franklin], Adonis [Morrison] and those [other] guys,” Perez said. “We challenged ourselves that year and we knew that they were leaving but we wanted to continue to challenge. After it was all said and done, and looking back at it, I was very proud of that team for having the success they did against the people they did.”

Senior Paul Versteeg, who went 7-4 last season, will be Gahr’s ace on the mound with junior Chris Corral the No. 2 guy. The infield will be very strong again defensively but expect senior third baseman Joe Dressel and junior second baseman Jesus Salazar to bat over .300. Seniors Albert Avila and Leotis Johnson bring some speed to the outfield.

Gahr is once again in the Newport Elks Tournament this season and will also host Corona, Long Beach Wilson, Marina and St. John Bosco among other opponents.

“This year’s schedule is tougher than last year’s schedule,” Perez said. “But I feel that we have a lot of versatility, a lot of athleticism and good leadership which makes up for being young, and makes up for not having that dominant guy.”

Perez has won a San Gabriel Valley League title four times in his 10 seasons at Gahr proving that the league is very tough and it figures to be the same again this season. In fact, when Gahr has won a league title, it did no better than a 13-2 mark.

“Our league is going to be tough again and what makes it tough is you only play them once there and once here,” Perez said. “Our challenge in the playoffs is going to be that traditional; quarterfinal-semifinal run that we’ve kind of had pretty consistently in Division III. I think we’re going to have to work even harder and have more things going for us to have that run.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

18-11 overall last season, 8-4 in the Suburban League, fourth place, lost to Righetti 4-2 in the Division II wild card playoffs

Head coach: Jack Brooks (fourth season, 40-40)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 54-75

Last time missed the playoffs: 2013

Key losses: Alex Barajas, Faustino Colon, David Correa, Fernando DeLuna, Carlos Garcia, Raymond Ochoa, David Perez, Martin Sandoval,

Projected lineup:

P-Jake Carr (SR)/Angel Chavez (SR)/Victor Sanchez (SR)/Luis Rojas (SR) Anthony Vargas (JR)

C-Rojas/Hector Sanchez (JR)

1B-Erick Galindo (SR)/Tony Varoz (SR)

2B-Humberto Chiquito (FR)/Rojas

3B-Angel Chavez (SR)

SS-Jake Carr (SR)

OF-Joe Gonzales (SO)

OF-Sammy Lopez (JR)

OF-Hector Sanchez

John Glenn was on a path for a rare Suburban League title after edging Bellflower 4-3 on May 7 at home. But the Eagles lost their last three games of the regular season, including two shutout losses to Mayfair, and dropped from first to fourth in the league in a matter of six days. But Glenn’s 18-11 season was a reminder that the Eagles are on the rise again. The 18 victories were the most in over 15 seasons and brought a huge smile to the face of head coach Jack Brooks.

“The teams we lost to were playoff teams,” Brooks said. “I’ll take an 18-win season. We lost to [Long Beach] Wilson, we lost to La Mirada, we lost to Bellflower, we lost to Mayfair, and we lost to La Serna. We didn’t get blown out. But moving forward, our expectations haven’t changed.

“The guys who were are key performers last year were Victor Sanchez and Luis Rojas, our two guys on the mound,” Brooks later said. “Let me make that perfectly clear. It had nothing to do with the transfers. Obviously, Jake Carr is an exception; he’s a tremendous player. But we split with Bellflower, a team we hadn’t beaten in a long time. And then the two Mayfair games were tremendous ballgames.”

Brooks was praising his senior hurlers, who went a combined 13-7 with 12 complete games. Sanchez had an earned run average of 1.02 and struck out 73 batters. Expect those numbers to be better this season. Senior shortstop Jake Carr, who transferred from Norwalk prior to last season, batted a team-high .342 and had nine doubles. Senior first baseman Erick Galindo and senior third baseman Angel Chavez are both solid players. But the team needs to improve on its offense as it hit .269 last season. If the hitting can come around, it will put less pressure on Rojas and Sanchez.

“Victor and Luis have been unbelievable,” Brooks said. “Both have been on varsity since their freshman year. Victor’s season speaks for itself last year. He’s the reigning M.V.P. of the league. Luis, I think, is underrated. He’s a guy who knows how to pitch. We’re really confident with our top of the rotation in their ability to keep us in games.”

Glenn finished in fourth place for the third time since 2008 and all three times resulted in either a wild card or first round loss in the playoffs. Glenn has the potential to do better than fourth place in 2015 in the very tough Suburban League.

“We have some serious expectations here to compete and it’s not about winning,” Brooks said. “It’s about competing and playing quality baseball. The wins and losses will take care of itself. We play in a very good league. It’s a league we haven’t won in 25 years. We’re all aware of it around here. Obviously La Mirada and Mayfair have been the dominant teams and they should be respected as the teams to beat.”

NORWALK LANCERS

6-19 overall, 1-11 in the Suburban League, seventh place

Head coach: Bill Wenrick (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 56-73

Last time made the playoffs: 2013

Key losses: Alex Gallego (SR), Manuel Garcia, Joel Hernandez, Albert Rodriguez, Dillan Recio, Trino Romero, Jonathan Sanchez, Ruben Urtez

Projected lineup:

P-Hector Amaya (SR)/Francisco Flores (JR)/Pete Hernandez (SR)/Adan Orozco (JR)/Julio Sanchez (JR)/Bryan Villalobos (SR)

C-Amaya/Orozco

1B-Flores

2B-Alex Aguilar (JR)/Mark Munoz (SR)

3B-Amaya/Antonio Guerrero (JR)/Hernandez

SS-Hernandez/Sanchez

OF-Gabe Anaya (SR)

OF-Villalobos

OF-Matthew Gonzalez (SR)/Andrew Martinez (JR)/Freddy Sandoval (SR)

Norwalk faltered to its worst season since 2007 when the Lancers went 5-19. The program missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and went through its third coach in as many seasons. Now, Bill Wenrick becomes number four since 2012 and will have his hands full to keep the Lancers out of last place for the second straight season and third time since 2007.

“It was kind of a surprise to me,” Wenrick said of getting the job. “I’ve coached at the lower levels here before under Mike Garcia and Ruben Velasquez. When Ruben left, that’s when I decided I was going to stop coaching too. I went and got my [teaching] credential, got hired on here. I know they had the same problem before, hanging onto coaches. I felt bad for the kids, especially the seniors who have had four different head coaches in four years. So, I couldn’t say no.”

Wenrick said he attended some of the games last season and felt the kids were playing too tight over the past few years. Five players return from last season’s squad and if Norwalk is going to do anything, then senior pitchers Hector Amaya and Pete Hernandez should keep the team in a lot of games. Hernandez picked up the lone league victory, a 3-1 home decision over Cerritos. Senior Gabe Anaya and Bryan Villalobos are the strengths of the outfield.

.“This team could be playoff caliber,” Wenrick said. “Of course, everything is going to have to bounce the right way for us. We’re not going to be giant killers. Coming off a season [like last year], we have to be realistic about it.

“With my type of personality, I’m not one who gets too high or somebody who gets too low,” he continued. “I think I bring that culture to the kids. As far as baseball culture, baseball has been played the same [as] back in the day when we won [a CIF championship] in 1982 we won with pitching and defense. That’s the first area I’m working with here.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS

12-12 overall last season, 4-8 in the Olympic League, fourth place, lost to Santa Ynez 3-1 in the Division V first round playoffs

Head coach: Michael Dunk (second season, 12-12)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 63-70

Last time missed the playoffs: 2010

Key losses: Brian Bischoff, Troy Craddock, Cody McKittrick

Projected lineup:

P-Jared Algra (SR)/Brett Garcia (FR)/Zach Krosschell (SO)/Kevin Sainz (SR)/Jack Struiksma (SR)/R.J. VanKampen (SO)

C-Aaron Kirchner (SR)/VanKampen

1B-Kenan Koops (SR)/Krosschell

2B-Tyler Radecki (SR)

3B-Garcia/Struiksma

SS-Sainz

OF-Algra

OF-Kirchner

OF-Nathan O’Toole (SR)/Jesse Smith (JR)

It wasn’t looking too good when then-rookie head coach Michael Dunk saw his squad lose eight of its first nine Olympic League games. V.C. was floundering at 6-11 overall and needed a miracle to advance to the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Then came a 12-2 win over Heritage Christian and sweeps over Whittier Christian and Norwalk. That was followed by a 7-2 road win against El Monte in the playoffs.

“My first year was a good year,” Dunk said. “We definitely learned a lot through our struggles and we also learned a lot through our positive games. We weren’t looking for the playoff run, but again, we rallied our boys to believe in themselves and the philosophy that I was teaching them. They came to life, won five straight games to clinch a playoff [spot], won a playoff game and lost to the eventual Division V champion out in Santa Ynez.”

The Crusaders return a lot of talent and shouldn’t have the same misfortunes they did last season. Of the 15 players on varsity, 13 of them are true pitchers. But the clear cut ace is senior Jack Struiksma with the No. 2 spot probably going to freshman Brett Garcia. Struiksma is also a strong hitter, as he batted .348 last season and drove in 17 runs. The biggest switch will be senior Tyler Radecki moving from the mound, where he was 3-3 with a 2.44 ERA, to second base. The outfield is as good as it gets with seniors Jared Algra, Aaron Kirchner and Nathan O’Toole (.321)

“We have nine seniors on our team this year and we’re very strong,” Dunk said. “They’re ready to play this year. They know how well we executed last year, especially during the late run and in the playoffs.”

V.C. last won a league title in 2012 when it went 10-2. But in the past two seasons, the Crusaders have gone 10-14 in the circuit and have had four winning league marks since 2005.

“I believe that the Olympic League, in terms of baseball as well as all of the other sports I’ve been able to witness, is probably one of the top Division V leagues, if not in all of Southern California,” Dunk said. “The way that some of these guys played, they’re easily Division II or Division III. I just don’t necessarily see that an enrollment size determines how our boys played.”

 

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