A season ago on the diamond, only Crescenta Valley High’s baseball team earned itself a spot in the playoffs.
This season, though, the Falcons find themselves in much the same situation as St. Francis, Flintridge Prep, Hoover and Glendale, as the quintet of local squads will be dealing with an overwhelming amount of new faces.
Only Crescenta Valley’s Ted Boeke and Michael Russo return among locals who were All-Area selections, as the majority of the local teams’ top talent from seasons past has moved on.
The graduations and turnover leave major questions as the season has just begun.
Coach Phil Torres’ Falcons won the Pacific League title last year thanks in large part to the contributions of Elliot Surrey, Troy Mulcahey and Kyle Murray, a decorated trio with plenty of seasons of varsity play under their belts. Now, Torres will look to Boeke, who will lead off and play shortstop, Cole Currie, a senior who will be the team’s No. 1 starter and play second base, and junior designated hitter Russo.
“The other six guys are still trying to prove themselves,” said Torres, who also counts junior center fielder Bryan Wang, the No. 2 hitter, among his returning starters. “We’re just gonna have to let kids play. We’ve got to find a way to get the best combination out there.”
While a lack of game experience is a factor, so too is an inexperienced pitching staff.
“I think pitching will be a question mark for the first two or three weeks,” said Torres, whose team was 1-1 heading into a game Saturday night.
Boeke, Wang, Russo and Currie, in that order, should make up the order and likely be the strength of the team.
“The top of the order’s gonna have to do some damage for us,” said Torres, who’s also looking for big contributions from senior Johnny Psaltis, a pitcher and one of three catchers, and freshman first baseman Adrian Damla. “We should be OK offensively.”
As for the rest of the Pacific League, Torres believes Burbank enters the season as the favorite, boasting the most experienced team and also thinks Arcadia, Burroughs and Pasadena should be battling along with the Falcons for the top four spots in league and automatic playoff berths.
Glendale is hoping to work its way into the Pacific’s playoff discussion if all goes right, as it’s one of three locals to welcome new coaches into the fold.
The Nitros will be managed by co-coaches John Tuttle and Chris Funaro, while Hoover is headed by former St. Francis Coach Brian Esquival and Flintridge Prep will be manned by Guillermo Gonzalez.
St. Francis, on the other hand, is under the guise of Aaron Milam, a longtime assistant for the Golden Knights who took over midway last season when Esquival moved on.
Just like any other season, St. Francis figures to face a loaded Mission League gauntlet, with Milam expecting Loyola, Harvard-Westlake and Alemany to be the favorites.
Milam, whose team opened Friday with a 4-2 loss to La Salle, figures to have depth on the mound, but will have to rely on some small ball to scratch together runs.
“We can pitch, we pitch pretty well. We’re pretty deep, we’ll compete on the bump,” said Milam, who will rely on the arms of senior Richie Alfonso, senior Daniel Monarrez and senior AJ Byer. “As far as scoring runs, that’s another story.”
Alfonso, who will also play first base, is likely to hit third and have a big say in what happens offensively, as well. Milam also likes the prospects of sophomore Andres Kim, an infielder who will lead off in the order.
Junior infielder Keven Baker will hit second in the order for a Golden Knights squad that tied for sixth in the seven-team Mission League a year ago.
“We’ve been playing a lot of small ball,” said Milam, who lost standout hitter David Olmedo-Barrera and Tei Vanderford, among others, to graduation. “The make-up of the team is very different.”
Karlsen Termini, a senior pitcher and first baseman, returns to lead Flintridge Prep, but much else is different, most notably the loss of longtime coach Buzz Cook, who is replaced by 24-year-old Guillermo Gonzalez.
“It’s been really hard,” said Gonzalez of the transition. “We’re really young this year. They’ve bought into the program though.”
Termini is likely to be a major catalyst for the Rebels success, as the four-year starter is one of just three seniors on the 21-player roster.
“He’s putting the whole team on his back,” said Gonzalez, whose team has opened the season with a 2-2 record. “If he’s in the game, we’re all in the game.”
Gonzalez also expects important contributions from junior leadoff hitter Brenden McKiernan, who will start on the mound and play shortstop, while freshman infielder Cole Pilar is set to hit in the third spot.
The Rebels tied for last place in the five-team Prep League a season ago and, new coach or not, have prospects of moving up.
“Our biggest goal is to try to make playoffs,” Gonzalez said.
Funaro also has hopes that Glendale can work its way into the playoffs, but is looking to build up the program more than anything else as him and John Tuttle take over from Jesus Osuna.
“The transition has gone really well, a lot of the boys we knew,” said Funaro, who was the head junior varsity coach a season ago and had previously assisted on the JV level when Tuttle was the head coach prior to being hired as the school’s head football coach. “We brought some of those guys up and we’re gonna give it a shot.”
Funaro said last year’s JV squad was 9-10-1 and had five wins in the Pacific League — a far sight better than a varsity team that went 2-12 in league for seventh place.
Though there’s just one senior on the team, Funaro thinks that’s a plus possibly.
“We’re young, so they’re not, I guess you could say they’re kinda not used to losing,” Funaro said. “For us to be able to call [the season] a success, we’re hoping to play .500.”
Leading the way is likely to be junior Brandon Keen, a first baseman and starting pitcher, and junior center fielder
“We’re looking for those two to kind of carry us and for the rest of the guys to step into their spots and do their jobs,” Funaro said.
Esquival, who wasn’t officially hired on at Hoover until mid-January, just led the Tornadoes in their first homefield practice on Feb. 22 as the field was getting re sodded.
It’s just one of the many hiccups for a program looking to move up.
“We’re in the process of doing a lot of things from the beginning,” Esquival said. “We’re gonna go out there and compete as best as we can and hopefully some good things come out of it.”
Esquival replaces Joe Cotti, who navigated the Tornadoes to a sixth-place finish in league a season ago, but had proved instrumental in revamping the Hoover ballpark and the field in particular.
Now, however, Esquival inherits a squad that is young, has a few players currently ineligible and has a tough road ahead in hopes of moving up in the Pacific League.