Pitchers, beware. There's no hotter hitter in Southern California prep baseball than senior shortstop Keston Hiura of Valencia.
There I was on Friday to see for myself what all the fuss was about. In the first inning against host Canyon Country Canyon, on a 3-and-2 count, Hiura sent the ball flying over the center-field fence for his state-leading 12th home run of the season and fifth in three games.
"It's insane," said Valencia first baseman Devon Davis, who has been playing against and with Hiura since they were 10 years old. "I've never seen him hit like this."
Added interim Coach Michael Killinger: "That's as locked in as I've seen a high school hitter. We've had some comments from opposing coaches, 'We don't know what to throw him.'"
A year ago, Hiura hit one home run. He's 6 feet, 185 pounds, gets all A's on his report card and signed last fall with UC Irvine. He's batting .489. A big reason for his improvement is strength. Valencia's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Yudin, helped an already strong player get stronger physically and mentally.
"I'm just seeing the ball and feeling the groove," Hiura said. "I was always taught to hit the ball hard and whatever happens, happens. I'm not trying to hit home runs."
Newhall Hart Coach Jim Ozella started instructing his pitchers to throw the ball inside trying to jam Hiura after he hit a home run.
"We didn't throw the ball out over the plate again," Ozella said. "He's way dangerous. He can be pitched to, but you have to be very careful. He knows the game well enough so that he looks for certain pitches at certain times. If you fall behind in the count or you're not very careful, he's going to hit one out of the park."
Hiura's rise is similar to what Jake Bauers of Huntington Beach Marina began to do late last season. Bauers finished with 11 home runs and helped Marina reach the Southern Section Division 1 championship game before being selected in the seventh round of the June draft.
"There's nobody in Southern California having a better year," West Ranch Coach Casey Burrill said of Hiura. "He dominated us like he has dominated everybody. Our best move was to put four fingers in the air and tell the umpire to put him on. He's a fantastic hitter."
Valencia enters the final week of the regular season at 15-9 overall and 9-4 in the Foothill League, one game behind first-place Hart. Valencia has been hanging tough even though it lost its coach, Jared Snyder, in March. He is taking a leave of absence while the school district investigates an allegation of financial impropriety.
Now the story is about Hiura, a humble, hard-working teenager who says, "I'm just doing my job, doing what I was taught and executing."
Final week outlook
West Ranch sophomore outfielder Jason Drees is on an 18-game hitting streak.
Fountain Valley has emerged as the No. 1 team in Southern Section Division 1 behind pitcher Scott Schultz, who is 12-0.
There's final week drama in the Trinity League, where Santa Ana Mater Dei (12-12), last season's No. 1 seed in Division 1, needs a win over first-place San Juan Capistrano Junipero Serra either Tuesday at JSerra or Thursday at Mater Dei to become eligible for the playoffs.