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High school baseball championships: The best pitcher in Southern California played catcher a season ago

Eric Sondheimer
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No one deserves to be starting on the mound at Dodger Stadium in the Southern Section Division 1 championship game more than senior right-hander Jake Jackson of Lake Forest El Toro.

A year ago, he made an incredibly unselfish decision for a high school athlete: He volunteered to play a position that wouldn’t help him for college. El Toro needed a catcher, and Jackson agreed to fill the role even though pitching was his strength.

He started every game behind the plate and didn’t worry that not pitching might affect his college recruitment.

Fast forward to this season. Few people knew how good he might be because he didn’t pitch as a junior. Nevada recruiters saw him pitch one inning in a competition two summers ago.

It was enough for the school to offer him a scholarship (along with the fact his father played for former Nevada coach Gary Powers). And now Wolfpack coach T.J. Bruce is looking like a genius.

Jackson is the best pitcher in Southern California. He has a record of 11-1 with an 0.66 earned-run average and has walked only seven batters in 85 innings. His slider is about as nasty a pitch as you’ll see from a high school player.

“He’s taught himself everything,” Jackson’s father, Wade, said. “I sit behind home plate, and I’ve never seen a slider move like his does for an 18-year-old.”

Jackson gives up some hits, but his cool, calm confidence on the mound is extraordinary for someone who took a year off from pitching.

“High baseball IQ, and as competitive as I’ve been around,” Bruce said.

Jackson and junior left-hander Erik Tolman (8-3), another player who didn’t pitch last season, have led El Toro into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. final against Corona. They have been so good that they each surpassed El Toro’s preseason top pitchers, Sam Glick, a UCLA signee, and Noah Fluman, a San Diego State signee. Both have been strong supporters of Jackson and Tolman’s, a key ingredient in El Toro’s team success.

Asked about pitching at Dodger Stadium, Jackson said, “I’m stoked.”

Pitching also should be prominent in Saturday’s 1 p.m. City Section Division 1 final at Dodger Stadium between Chatsworth and Birmingham.

Two left-handers, Thomas Gutierrez of Chatsworth and Armando Yanez of Birmingham, will get the start on the mound. Gutierrez is 11-0 with an 0.88 ERA. Yanez is 6-3 with a 1.87 ERA.

Yanez is sticking with what has helped him pick up two playoff victories, using country music to relax him and his teammates before games. He usually sings and dances to Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again.” It’s doubtful he’ll get his favorite song playing at Dodger Stadium, so he’s coming prepared.

“Of course, everyone will be nervous,” he said. “But I just have to do my job and get everyone’s nerves off the game so we can have fun. I’m bringing a speaker and will blast it all the way there.”

The Southern Section Division 2 final on Friday at Dodger Stadium between Etiwanda and Palm Desert might produce a home run or two. Etiwanda has hit 29 home runs this season. Palm Desert has Jeremiah Estrada, who has hit three-run home runs in each of the last two playoff games.

This weekend’s softball championship games in Irvine feature a Division 1 final at 6:30 p.m. Saturday between two of the top teams in the nation. Norco is 33-0. Los Alamitos is 27-3.

Naomi Hernandez of Norco has 12 hits in 13 at-bats during the playoffs.

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Championship games schedule

Friday

Southern Section baseball

At Dodger Stadium

Division 2: Etiwanda vs. Palm Desert, 4 p.m.

Division 1: No. 2 El Toro vs. Corona, 7:30 p.m.

At Riverside Sports Complex

Division 7: No. 1 Faith Baptist vs. No. 3 Arrowhead Christian, 4 p.m.

Division 4: No. 1 Tahquitz vs. No. 3 Grace Brethren, 7:30 p.m.

Southern Section softball

At Barber Park, Irvine

Division 4: No. 1 Buena vs. San Marcos, 12:30 p.m.

Division 7: No. 1 Village Christian vs. No. 2 Santa Ynez, 3:30 p.m.

Division 5: No. 1 South Torrance vs. No. 3 Heritage Christian, 6:30 p.m.

SATURDAY

City Section baseball

At Dodger Stadium

Division II: No. 4 Los Angeles CES vs. No. 14 Arleta, 10 a.m.

Division I: No. 1 Chatsworth vs. No. 7 Birmingham, 1 p.m.

Southern Section baseball

At Riverside Sports Complex

Division 6: Moreno Valley vs. Santa Maria, noon

Division 3: No. 4 Walnut vs. No. 2 Righetti, 3:30 p.m.

Division 5: No. 4 Chaffey vs. No. 3 Katella, 7 p.m.

Southern Section softball

At Barber Park, Irvine

Division 6: No. 1 Sierra Canyon vs. No. 3 St. Anthony, 9:30 a.m.

Division 3: No. 4 Murrieta Mesa vs. Hart, 12:30 p.m.

Division 2: No. 4 Camarillo vs. Riverside Poly, 3:30 p.m.

Division 1: No. 1 Norco vs. No. 2 Los Alamitos, 6:30 p.m.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: latsondheimer

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