Lions aim for encore

The best season in a quarter century resulted from the Vanguard University baseball program making great strides in 2010. This season, third-year coach Ralph Grajeda wants his Lions to walk the walk of a perennial postseason contender.

"The group we had last year was very competitive and very driven," said Grajeda, whose team started 15-1 on the way to a 34-20 finish that included a school-record 22 wins in the Golden State Athletic Conference. Vanguard advanced to the NAIA Tournament for the first time since 1985, an occurrence Grajeda hopes can become a yearly ritual.

"We mapped out what we wanted to accomplish last year and we did it," Grajeda said. "Everybody bought in and it was gigantic. Probably nobody believed we would do what we did last season except our kids, because there was no body of work behind it.

"The kids who have returned understand what we need to do to be in the postseason and the kids we have recruited come from programs where they won and that helps when you're trying to change the culture of a program," Grajeda said. "Now that we're where we want to be, those strides are going to be tougher to get — inch-by-inch."

Grajeda said a dozen seniors departed last year, including GSAC batting champion Eric Krzysiak, who hit .439 with a school-record 86 hits and was first-team all-conference as a designated hitter.

Other departed standouts include catcher Kip Masuda (nine homers and 40 runs batted in), shortstop Zach Leighton (.318, seven homers, 33 RBIs) and starting pitcher Brandon Godfrey (8-4 with a 3.94 earned-run average), as well as pitchers Peter Birdwell (drafted in the 25th round by the New York Mets) and Lance Abbott (signed by the Seattle Mariners' organization as a free agent).

Topping the returners are senior pitcher Robert Purpura, senior center fielder Tyson Leighton and senior outfielder Brandon Young.

Purpura earned all-conference honors last season, when he went 2-1 with seven saves and a 4.50 ERA. He ended the year in the starting rotation, where he will remain this season. He is expected to be the lone right-hander among the four primary starters, Grajeda said.

"He did a great job," Grajeda said of Purpura, who transferred before last season from Irvine Valley College. "He was our best pitcher at the end of the year."

Tyson Leighton led the team with 12 home runs and 63 RBIs while hitting .365. He anchors an outfield of three center fielders, Grajeda said, including Young and newcomer Matt Avery, a junior transfer from Cypress Community College.

Young (.343 with six homers and 38 RBIs in 48 starts last season) will shift from right field to left field," Grajeda said. Young was the GSAC's Gold Glove right fielder last season.

Another returner expected to contribute heavily is senior pitcher-first baseman Jason Dovel, a lefty who hit .287 with four homers and 21 RBIs, while also going 4-3 with a 4.33 ERA in 13 mound starts.

Among the newcomers, a blend of transfers from two- and four-year programs, is senior first baseman Kyle Hardman, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder who belted 18 home runs and drove in 54 last season at Northern Colorado University. Hardeman is a former JC All-American at Santa Ana College.

Jeremiah Mejia, a senior transfer from Oral Roberts, can play first and catch, while Bryson Rahier, a senior transfer from San Jose State, is a switch-hitting catcher expected to help fill the void left behind the plate by Masuda.

Avery hit .324 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in 105 at-bats last season at Cypress.

"[Avery] is a dude," Grajeda said. "He had some Division I offers, but he decided to stay close to home."

Sean Wilson, a senior transfer from Gonzaga, is expected to see time at third base, Grajeda said. He hit .256 with one homer and 20 RBIs in 38 games and 121 at-bats at Gonzaga last season.

Brandon Pesante, a senior returner, and Eric Sanchez, a junior transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, are in the mix at second base, Grajeda said. Pesante had four homers and 26 RBIs in 154 at-bats as a junior, when he hit .247. Sanchez hit .333 in 27 at-bats at Bakersfield in 2010.

Stepping in for Zach Leighton at shortstop will be sophomore returner Brandon Arroyo, as well as speedy junior Darrell Hudson, a transfer from Compton Community College.

Arroyo stepped up in the postseason as a freshman to fill in for the injured Freeman. Arroyo hit .327 in 49 at-bats, with two homers and nine RBIs.

Expected to join Purpura and Dovel in the starting rotation are JC transfers Gabe Garcia (Cypress) and Tony Peraza (Compton).

Garcia, a 5-8 junior, was 3-3 with a 4.97 ERA last season, when he struck out 54 in 541/3 innings at Cypress.

Peraza, a 6-2, 200-pounder, throws in the low-90-mph range, Grajeda said, and he should help give the Lions a lefty-dominated starting staff to combat the wealth of left-handed hitters in the GSAC.

Grajeda said senior returner James McGeary (4-0 with a 5.82 ERA in 2010), junior Joey Vega, a transfer from Lindenwood University, an NAIA school in Missouri, and senior Mike Leal, a transfer from Culver-Stockton College in Missouri, are also expected to bolster a pitching staff under the direction of first-year pitching coach and former major leaguer reliever Jerry Spradlin.

The Lions open the season today at 2 p.m. at home against La Sierra. They begin conference play Feb. 23 at Azusa Pacific.

GSAC members Cal Baptist (No. 3), Point Loma Nazarene (No. 8) and Fresno Pacific (No. 15) were all in the NAIA preseason top-25 poll, in which Concordia also received votes.

"It's a black-and-blue conference," Grajeda said.

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