For the last two high school baseball seasons, Jesse Bergin has been the ace pitcher for Studio City Harvard-Westlake. In the Southern Section Division 1 semifinals as a sophomore in 2016, he shut out No. 1-seeded JSerra 2-0.
Yet his position for 2018 was a little precarious as he was being pushed by Sam Hliboki, a rising junior right-hander, last summer and fall.
"There's a quote," Bergin said in December while sitting comfortably in the Harvard-Westlake dugout with Hliboki at his side. "If you want to go fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go together. I really take that into consideration. You have to work as a team if you want to get a championship."
Little did Bergin know the importance of his observation because in late January the 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior right-hander who has committed to UCLA learned he won't be able to pitch this season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Now Hliboki, a Vanderbilt commit who's 6-3 and 180 pounds, will take over as the No. 1 pitcher. The Wolverines were expected to be a strong contender for the Southern Section Division 1 championship with the pitching duo of Bergin and Hliboki. Now it's wait and see.
This brings back memories of 2012, when the Wolverines were considered a cinch to win it all with three future first-round draft picks in the pitching rotation in Lucas Giolito, Max Fried and Jack Flaherty. Then Giolito was sidelined with an arm injury in early March and did not pitch the rest of the season.
"He will absolutely be in the dugout and will have an important role because we have young pitchers who need mentorship," Harvard-Westlake Coach Jared Halpert said of Bergin. "He'll call Lucas and maybe Lucas will say, 'This is what I did.'"
Hliboki gave a sneak peek of how dominant he might be earlier this month, striking out seven in three innings against a highly regarded Santa Ana Mater Dei lineup loaded with future college players.
"Jesse, on the field and off, is one of my closest friends, and it's tough to see him go through this," Hliboki said. "But I'm definitely ready to step up and hopefully fill his shoes."
Southern California is known for producing top pitchers and this season should be no different. From a pro perspective, there are few potential high senior draft prospects other than Cole Winn of Orange Lutheran, a transfer from Colorado with electric stuff. But there are plenty of standouts who throw strikes and can win games.
Sophomore Lucas Gordon of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, a USC commit, is a left-hander with immense ability. Senior Chandler Champlain of Santa Margarita, another USC commit, had a big offseason. Senior Erik Tolman, the No. 2 pitcher for Division 1 champion El Toro last season, is ready to become the ace. Senior Owen Sharts of Simi Valley, a Nevada commit, has been receiving rave reviews.
Another intriguing storyline is the pitching depth of top teams, which have developed two and three main contributors. Some of it has to do with the fact that top leagues like the Trinity and Mission play three league games a week, forcing teams to develop more than just an ace.
The No. 1 pro prospect in Southern California is shortstop Brice Turang of Corona Santiago. He's considered a hitting machine.
Harvard-Westlake would have been a certain No. 1 team with Bergin. Without him, the Wolverines are still in contention. They have top young prospects in sophomores Drew Bowser (shortstop) and Pete Crow-Armstrong (outfielder), juniors Michael Snyder (infielder) and J.P. Corrigan (first base) and seniors RJ Shreck (outfielder) and Loren Franck (third base).
Hliboki benefited from working out last summer with Bergin in what essentially was a daily competition.
"It's nothing but a footrace from the moment they put their cleats on," Halpert said before Bergin's injury. "It's that competitive nature. We let Sam know he hasn't been our No. 1 and we let Jesse know Sam is right on his heels."
Now it's up to Hliboki to take over the role of ace in 2018.
"Since he's gone down, I've worked as hard as I can trying to be the best I can be for this season," Hliboki said.
Working with pitching coach Joe Guntz, it's clear Hliboki's control is much improved. His fastball is touching 90 mph and he's developed a sharp breaking pitch.
He seems poised to join the likes of Flaherty, Giolito, Fried and Bergin as the Wolverines' next star pitcher.
"It's not fair to compare," Halpert said of the Wolverines' many quality pitchers. "They're all special."