BURBANK — Coming into Hector Perez' 10th year at the helm of Bellarmine-Jefferson's baseball program, he'd cultivated five Santa Fe League MVPs. Each year Perez expects the league's MVP to be wearing a Guards uniform.
"It's always going to be a competition between us," Perez said. "The league MVP is in this school so we ask the team before the start of the season, 'Who is it going to be?' We motivate them to strive for that award."
After the 2011 baseball season, Perez is six for 11 now that Bell-Jeff's senior pitcher/shortstop Philip Diaz-McTague was crowned the Santa Fe League Player of the Year. It was an incredible comeback story, as Diaz-McTague sat out almost all of his junior campaign with a severely broken ankle.
"It was overwhelming when I heard I was named MVP," said Diaz-McTague, who propelled his team to a second-place finish in league and a spot in the CIF playoffs. "We all worked so hard this year and the work paid off. It was really rewarding."
Doctors told him he may never regain his range of mobility to where he'd be able to play sports again. Diaz-McTague took that as a challenge and rose to the occasion. It was impossible to keep him from practicing with his fellow Guards, even before he was given the clearance to start walking again.
"He was still working and doing drills without moving, sitting on a chair or on a bucket," Perez said. "He did everything he could without walking on it because the doctor told him not to. His hand-eye coordination and athleticism have always been there. There was no stopping him."
"I knew that I wanted to come back and every year it's my goal to get better in the offseason," Diaz-McTague said. "This season I took the most time I could and worked on every aspect of my game. I wanted to get better and I wasn't going to let an injury keep me from getting better or use my injury as an excuse for why I wasn't playing well."
Diaz-McTague never had to make an excuse for his play, either. He finished the season hitting .492 (30 for 61) with 27 runs scored, 15 RBIs, a home run and four stolen bases (on five attempts). His six doubles, three triples, on-base (.549) and slugging percentages (.738) were all team highs for the Guards. He was also one of Bell-Jeff's go-to pitchers, tossing a second-most 28 1/3 innings.
Not only did Diaz-McTague lead Bell-Jeff statistically, but emotionally as well.
"He was the foundation of our team and our program — definitely our leader," Perez said. "He was a vocal leader and our pillar."
Three other members of Bell-Jeff's team — Matt Landini, Johnny Karalis and Mitch Kellogg — were All-Santa Fe first-team selections.
"With the talent and hard work that Landini and Karalis have, it makes my job so much easier," Perez said. "Landini was another piece of the puzzle and we put a lot of expectations on him because we knew he could succeed."
Landini, a junior pitcher/infielder, posted a .355 batting average (22 for 62) and .406 on-base and .532 slugging percentage. He scored 24 runs, drove in 14 and led Bell-Jeff on the mound with a 3.15 earned-run average and struck out 18 batters, while walking just three. He also held opposing batters to a team-low .181 batting average.
Karalis, a sophomore, was another dual threat on the mound and in center field for the Guards. He held opposing batters to a .250 batting average and recorded a 3.84 earned-run average, while striking out 28 batters in 27.1 innings. At the plate, he hit .400 (16 for 40) and posted a .449 on-base and .500 slugging percentage, scoring and driving in 12 runs and swiping seven bases. He also led Bell-Jeff's outfield defensively.
"We knew from last year [Johnny] was going to be tremendous athlete," Perez said. "He was our anchor in center because he could track so much ground out there."
Kellogg, a sophomore, provided some pop from the catcher's position, posting a .362 batting average (21 for 58), .449 on-base percentage, scoring 18 times, collecting 15 RBI and stealing five bases. He caught 10 runners stealing from behind the plate, too.
"Mitch was the unsung hero," Perez said. "He gave us a lot of victories because of the work he does behind the plate. He handles the pitchers so well and a lot of people don't notice it, but I [do] and the rest of the coaching staff does."
Henry Terrones, a senior outfielder/pitcher, and Ryan Okiishi, a sophomore first baseman, were named to All-Santa Fe League's second team. Terrones finished the season with a .259 batting average, seven runs and four RBI after joining the team in the middle of the season. He recorded a team-low 1.68 earned-run average in 8.1 innings on the mound and struck out nine batters, walking just two.
"[Terrones] gave us that boost we needed in the outfield in the middle of the season and pitched some very important innings for us," Perez said.
Okiishi was Bell-Jeff's No. 4 hitter and he excelled in the role, driving in a team-high 25 runs, while still hitting for average (.304, 17 for 56).
"We knew we could always rely on him with the bat," Perez said. "He really grew in the summer and we put him in the first-base role and the four-hole because we knew he could handle hitting any pitch. The future is bright for him."