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2014 BASEBALL PREVIEW: Norwalk, Valley Christian face different obstacles with new coaches

By Loren Kopff

While the Norwalk and Valley Christian baseball teams begin the 2014 with new coaches, both will have to overcome their own differences. One will field a young squad as potential returning players transferred to an arch rival while the other team hopes to rebound from the loss of its pitching/catching tandem. Whitney, the area’s longstanding dormant program, still keeps going.
Returning players in italics.
NORWALK LANCERS (13-12 overall last season, 6-6 in the Suburban League, fourth place, lost to Temecula Valley 10-0 in the Division II first round)
Head coach: Ruben Marquez (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 61-66
Last time missed the playoffs: 2009
Key losses: Joseph Borjorquez, Jacob Carr (JR-transferred to John Glenn), Faustino Colon (SR-transferred to John Glenn), Fernando DeLuna (SR-transferred to John Glenn), Miguel Castaneda, Carlos Garcia (SR-transferred to John Glenn), Adrian Gonzales, Tyler McCalman, Jesse Rodriguez
Projected lineup:
P-Hector Amaya (JR)/Manuel Garcia (SR)/Alex Gallego (JR)/Joel Hernandez (SR)/Pete Hernandez (JR)/Trino Romero (SR)/Bryan Villalobos (JR)
C-Gallego/Dillan Recio (SR)
1B-Amaya/Ruben Urtez (SR)
3B-Juan Hernandez
SS-Joel Hernandez/Romero/Julio Sanchez (SO)
OF-Gabriel Anaya (JR)
OF-Albert Rodriguez (SR)
For the third straight season, the Lancers will have a new coach as Ruben Marquez replaces Ruben Guerrero, who lasted only one season. In addition, former head coach and last season’s assistant coach, Ruben Velasquez, went across town to become an assistant at John Glenn.
Marquez, who was on Norwalk’s coaching staff about 10 years ago and most recently on the Gahr coaching staff, has to build on a program that has gone to the playoffs four straight seasons and six out of the last nine. But, the program is declining as it once had 85 players, but is now down to 53.
“The work ethic was very poor,” Marquez said of his first impressions of Norwalk. “Now there are guidelines, rules and things that they have to do in order to be a better baseball player. Overall, the program has to change and that’s what I’m here to do; to change the program to where we have structure.”
Norwalk has to deal with the loss of four starters who transferred to John Glenn. As a result, only four players return and the team will be relatively built around juniors. Senior pitcher Trino Romero, a shortstop last season, is the team’s most experienced player. Senior catcher Dillan Recio replaces the graduated Joseph Borjorquez while senior Pete Hernandez could be a key component to the pitching staff.
This is a program that has to forget about the four players and assistant coach bolting to the other side of town and focus on staying, at least, in the middle of the Suburban League pack. If there’s any motivation the team needs, it could be the fact that it faces Glenn in time for Glenn’s league opener on Apr. 2. That comes a week after Norwalk opens the league slate against Mayfair.
“They talk to me about it and I told them that feelings have to be put aside,” Marquez said of the transferred players. “We have a job to do and our job is to come out and win every game. We have to control our own destiny. We have to play our own game.”
VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS (12-16 overall last season, 6-6 in the Olympic League, tied for third place, lost to Templeton 10-6 in the Division V first round)
Head coach: Michael Dunk (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 60-75-1
Last time missed the playoffs: 2010
Key losses: Patrick Avila, Liam Bestian, Clayton Granch, Tyler McLurg, Nico Morandini
Projected lineup:
P-Jared Algra (JR)/Brian Bischoff (SR)/Levy Chavez (SR)/Troy Craddock (SR)/Aaron Kirchner (JR)/Kenan Koops (JR)/Kevin Sainz (JR)/Jack Struiksma (JR)
C-Kirchner/Rick Pena (JR)
1B-Bischoff/Craddock/Mitchell Torres (SR)
2B-Algra/Nathan O’Toole (JR)/Tyler Radecki (JR)
OF-Cody McKittrick (SR)
Valley Christian has made the playoffs three straight seasons and six out of the last nine, just like Norwalk. But the Crusaders have done that under five different coaches, Now, Michael Dunk becomes the school’s eighth head coach since 2002 and while the team has a lot of returning players, the pitching staff will definitely be tested with the graduation of its top two guys.
Dunk spent two seasons as an assistant at Cerritos before becoming the Dons junior varsity coach last season. He was also on the Long Beach State University staff from 2008-2010.
“Walking into Valley Christian, these boys have a lot of talent and I have to say I’ve inherited a great group of individuals,” Dunk said. “These boys have a chip on their shoulder. They’re hungry; they’re ready to fight. We’re looking for an Olympic League title and nothing less for a championship there and hopefully a deep run in the CIF playoffs in Division V this year.”
V.C. has won four league titles since 2000, the last coming two seasons ago. Dunk said that some of the players are disappointed about their performances from last season. But again, the experience that V.C. brings back should keep the team right at the top of the league. He adds that the players want to establish the dominance in league they once had and not seen as a pushover to some teams.
According to Dunk, juniors Kevin Sainz and Jack Struiksma will be the top two aces on the pitching staff with the latter being the No. 1 hurler. Senior Troy Craddock is a dominant left-handed pitcher and is projected to see an inning or two in a lot of games. The Crusaders have a much deeper pitching staff that in the past and could throw as many as 10 guys on the mound.
Junior Aaron Kirchner is slated to be the starting catcher when Struiksma pitches while junior Rick Pena will most likely be behind the plate for the second of the home and home league games, among other games. The starting infield figures to be senior Mitchell Torres at first base, junior Nathan O’Toole at second, Sainz at shortstop and Struiksma at third. Senior center fielder Cody McKittrick can cover a lot of ground in V.C.’s spacious outfield while junior Tyler Radecki is a transfer from Whittier Christian.
“Village Christian and Maranatha are going to be our two main competitors that we’re looking to go against in league,” Dunk said. “They’re going to be ready. [We’re] looking for an Olympic League championship this year.
WHITNEY WILDCATS (1-18 overall last season, 1-14 in the Academy League, sixth place)
Head coach: Neil Freeman (eighth season, 11-118)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 10-83
Last time made the playoffs: 1997
Whitney first fielded a baseball team in 1984 and had five straight winning seasons. Since then, the program has been above .500 only twice. But longtime head coach Neil Freeman will constantly tell you that he doesn’t think about the wins and losses. He says that every year is a success and he thinks about the effort the kids put in each game.
“The best thing I can tell them, which is the most truthful thing, is that these are all academic kids,” Freeman said. “So, if they have four-year varsity baseball on their resume, that’s the best thing they can do.”
He adds that the kids have a lot of spirit, that they’re good learners and that they’re fun to be with. The Wildcats graduated nine seniors from last season’s team, five of whom had never played baseball before. This season, the team returns seniors Alex Arias and Cole Mesa and juniors Agustin Balquin, Joshua Bautista, Eric Cho and Jerry Liu. Other members of the team are seniors John Lee and Jesse Modesto, sophomores Anthony Clark and Marco Martinez and freshmen Christley Agbaroji, Daniel Klyde, Howard Lin, Kurt Panganiban and Devin Patel.
Arias, Cho, Liu and Mesa spent some time on the mound last season while Balquin was an outfielder along with Liu and Bautista was at third base last season as was Mesa.
“We just take it one year at a time,” Freeman said. “What happens here at this school, which probably doesn’t happen at any other schools, is if they come in as a freshman, they’ll play in their freshman and sophomore years but they won’t play in the 11th grade because that’s their year to qualify for colleges. So, I lose a lot of 11th graders. Some of them come back as seniors and some of them don’t. My average graduating group is about three seniors a year.”