It’s Building Up to Something Big
The baseball banquet at Thousand Oaks High is usually a nice little get-together, a time to thank the seniors and reflect on a season that typically goes like this: Finish second or third in the Marmonte League, lose in the first round of the playoffs, enjoy the grub at the banquet and listen to tidy, polite speeches about the team’s top players.
This year’s banquet, held Thursday night, had a different sense of purpose, a unique beat and rhythm. The Lancers are in a baseball title game for the first time in school history, which made the tri-tip go down a lot easier at the three-hour event.
Thousand Oaks, 10-14 and out of the playoffs a year ago, will play Anaheim Canyon today at Edison Field in the Southern Section Division II championship game -- an opportunity for a program that had not come close to a baseball title in the school’s 41-year existence.
Before this season, the Lancers had not been past the playoff quarterfinals. That changed with a 5-3 victory over Arroyo Grande on May 30.
Before this season, the Lancers had not been past the semifinals. That changed with a 6-2 victory over Valencia on Tuesday.
It has been a quick turnaround in Coach Rod Stillwell’s second season as head coach.
“When I originally became head coach, my first thoughts were that it was going to take some time to get these kids acclimated to the way I do things,” Stillwell said. “I was their third coach in three years. One coach was telling them to do things a certain way, then another guy came in and had his ways and then I came in. I knew we had talent, but I also knew the rest of this league had talent and the rest of the area.”
Thousand Oaks (24-6) was largely overlooked before the season, but timely hitting and dependable pitching have brought the Lancers this far.
Valencia stranded 13 runners in the semifinal game, but Thousand Oaks knocked in runners in scoring position with three-run outbursts in the third and sixth innings and stranded only two runners in the game.
Kyle Ayers (6-1), a 6-foot-3 right-hander, and Bret Montgomery (10-2), a 6-5 right-hander, have been more than reliable throughout the season and combined on a seven-hitter against the normally potent Valencia offense.
Through it all, Stillwell has coached with the passion that marked his days as an overachieving 5-6, 140-pound shortstop who graduated from Thousand Oaks in 1985 and played two years in the minor leagues before blowing out his shoulder.
“Not everybody can be a superstar as far as being able to throw 90 mph or hit .400 or .500, but everybody can hustle,” Stillwell said. “I didn’t have all the talent in the world; I had to work hard and get every ounce of talent from myself. I’m trying to instill that in my players.”
Stillwell’s last name may be familiar to Major League Baseball fans. His older brother, Kurt, played nine years in the majors primarily as a shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals, after graduating from Thousand Oaks.
This year’s shortstop for the Lancers, Chad Lundahl, was two years away from being born when Kurt Stillwell was selected No. 2 overall by Cincinnati in the 1983 amateur draft.
Yet Lundahl bears some of the same traits, with a solid bat and unquestioned team leadership. Lundahl, a 6-2, 185-pounder who has signed with UC Irvine, has six hits in 10 playoff at-bats, including two home runs and six runs batted in.
Lundahl has been on varsity since his freshman season, a longtime rider on the coaching carousel that might have finally stopped with Rod Stillwell.
“It was hard for a lot of guys to get comfortable with the coach and next year he’s gone,” Lundahl said. “It’s hard to build a program or tradition if coaches keep leaving. Coach Stillwell came in last year and did a great job getting us off the ground. Thousand Oaks baseball is going to be a great tradition after this with the coaches we have here. You’ll see more years like this to come.”
It makes sense for Stillwell, who will be 36 a week from today, to log some time at Thousand Oaks. He and his wife, Valerie, are teachers at the school. His father, Ron, a former infielder for USC and the Washington Senators, was a longtime coach at Thousand Oaks who also coached at nearby Cal Lutheran University and Moorpark junior college.
The annual team banquet might coincide more often with deep runs through the playoffs. A championship tradition could begin as early as today.
“Reaching the finals is [almost] the goal we set way back in September,” Stillwell said. “We’ve got one more step to make it a satisfying season.”