Faulkner: Pirates baseball team honors Watanabe legacy

It has been five years since Orange Coast College won a state baseball championship, which capped a tumultuous season marked by ultimate tragedy. Yet the memory of the 2009 in-season death of then-redshirt catcher Jourdan Watanabe, just as it did with that title team, still resonates with the 2014 edition of Coach John Altobelli's Pirates.

Watanabe earned All-Orange Empire conference honors as a freshman, less than one year before news of his passing hit the OCC program, his Irvine community, and much of the Southern California baseball world like a fastball to the ear hole.

Summoning all the resolve that athletics can help foster, that team went on to earn the school's fourth state crown, its first since 1980, ultimately dog-piling on the same Fresno City College infield on which it will begin play in the four-team state tournament on Saturday at 6 p.m. against College of the Sequoias.

The 2009 Pirates played with Watanabe's No. 22 jersey hanging in their dugout and with the No. 22 painted on their outfield fence and behind home plate, as well as penned into most of their caps. The No. 22, painted in six-foot-high white letters, remains on display just left of the left-field foul pole at Wendell Pickens Field and, after an April 5 loss left the Pirates 9-7 in the Orange Empire Conference, Altobelli showed the team the power-point video presentation he made after the 2009 title run, illustrating how a team could overcome adversity to earn the sport's ultimate prize.

The resulting inspiration has spurred a 12-game winning streak, including six postseason contests on the road to Fresno. And players have acknowledged that the video recalling Watanabe's death has impressed upon them an appreciation and urgency to capitalize on the opportunity this season presents.

"I think the guys kind of changed the way they approach things and understand what the team is about," Altobelli said of the aftermath of showing the video.

Sophomore shortstop Cody Nulph, the Orange Empire Conference MVP who is bound for Auburn, said he and his teammates were moved.

"I think [the video] has had a huge impact on the team," Nulph said. "Before that, we didn't have the cohesion that a championship team does have. I think we have been able to come together and really focus [since]."

OCC freshman pitcher Art Vidro, who was in junior high in 2009, also commented on the video's impact.

"I know for the team, and especially for myself, it was a real eye-opener that the game can be taken away from you at any time," said Vidro, who has won all three of his postseason starts. "You have to play every game like it is your last and give it your all. You can't take anything for granted.

"I knew a little about [Watanabe's death] hearing from other guys here last year," Vidro said. "When we saw the video, it kind of got deeper in our hearts. Everyone is always wearing 22 and loves 22."

•The Watanabe legacy at OCC has been fortified by the continued association with the program of Kent Watanabe, Jourdan's father. The older Watanabe, who had a brain aneurysm in 2010 that has left him with some paralysis that requires him to use a cane, has been a tireless booster who ran the snack bar at games in previous seasons. This season, however, Altobelli added Kent to his coaching staff as an assistant coach, working primarily with hitters.

"I've always been involved in some capacity in baseball," Kent said. "I didn't ever dream of doing this at this level, but it sort of fell out of the sky and it was a great opportunity. I'm disabled, so I don't work any more since I had my aneurysm. When my wife went back to work, I was just sitting at home all day long. So when this thing fell in my lap, she encouraged me to do it.

"I said 'I don't know enough about college baseball to do that.' She said 'It's OK, [Altobelli] must think that you can do it, otherwise he wouldn't have asked you.' That's how it went and it has been an incredible ride. Just to see what my son did in his last year of life, playing ball for these guys; I'm in his footsteps. It is really cool.

"I love these players, and Alto has meant a lot to me and my family, which more than anything is the reason I'm here. It's a great feeling to be able to contribute in whatever shape or form these guys relate to me in. I kind of feel that I'm going to be here for as long as I'm wanted here. I have no plans on going anywhere."

Watanabe said being at the OCC diamond, with its visual reminders of his son, is very meaningful to him.

"First of all, it makes me proud that [his son's tangible legacy] even exists," Kent said. "And for that reason, I will be here for as long as I'm wanted. My son's number is all over the place here and Alto is the one who keeps that alive."

•The Pirates (33-9), the No. 1 overall seed from Southern California, rank first in batting average (.310) and earned-run average (1.91) among the four state tournament participants. Sequoias (33-11), the No. 5 overall Northern California seed that upset top-seeded Chabot in the best-of-three sectional round, is hitting .307 as a team with an ERA of 4.09.

Oxnard (33-10), the No. 2 overall seed from SoCal, is hitting .289 with a team ERA of 2.03, while San Joaquin Delta (33-9), the No. 2 overall seed from NorCal, is hitting .289 with a 2.41 ERA.

OCC defeated Delta in the 2009 championship game and the Mustangs won their second state crown in 2011. Oxnard has never won a state crown and Sequoias has not been to the Final Four since 1997.

OCC is seeking its fifth state crown (2009, 1980, 1960 and 1956), and is making its fifth state tournament appearance in Altobelli's 22 seasons, its fourth in the last 10 years (also in 2005, '09 and '12).

The Pirates, who feature OEC Co-Pitchers of the Year David Hill and Jacob Hill, who happen to be identical twins with a combined 20-1 record, are likely to face Sequoias sophomore ace Dylan Lee (13-0 with a 2.35 ERA) on Saturday.

OCC, with 23 homers this season, led by state leader Chris Iriart with nine, will take over the state lead if it should hit three this weekend. Delta has 13 homers as a team, while Oxnard has 12 and Sequoias just six.

•OCC freshman second baseman L. Grant Davis is no stranger to the championship environment. He was a bat boy for UC Irvine in the 2007 College World Series in Omaha.

•Altobelli is hoping to be more involved on this trip to Fresno than he was in 2009, when he was under suspension for arguing with umpires and was forced to view the proceedings from a secret location outside the dugout and stands.

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