Patriots start as No. 1

The last time Beckman High's baseball team took the field, the game ended with a pile of bodies celebrating a CIF Southern Section Division 3 championship at Dodger Stadium.

The Patriots open the new season on Thursday against Tesoro, but don't ask Beckman Coach Kevin Lavelle about "defending" the CIF crown.

"We're trying to approach the year as though we don't have to defend anything," said Lavelle, whose Patriots beat Pacific Coast League rival Woodbridge, 4-1, to win CIF last June 2 at Dodger Stadium. "We're proud of what happened last year. And I'd be lying if I say we're going to forget about it the next three months because we're not. But we don't have to defend anything.

"In high school baseball or any high school sport, really there's no such thing as 'defending' CIF champion because you never have the same team. If I have to defend last year's title, I want my catcher, my second baseman, my right fielder and a pitcher back."

Lavelle may have lost a few of his key players from last year's team to graduation, but he's got quality players returning. So much so, the Patriots are ranked No. 1 in the Division 3 preseason rankings.

"It's a great honor, that's never happened before at the beginning of the season," Lavelle said. "It's a sign of respect from the coaches in the division. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really mean anything. I'll say what any coach would say — it doesn't really change anything. The game is still 0-0 when it starts."

The Patriots have six starters returning from last year's championship team, which went 13-2 to win the PCL crown and 25-6 overall. Three of those players recently signed college letters of intent — pitcher James Kaprielian to UCLA, third baseman Zack Rivera to Long Beach State and shortstop Garret Brown to Indiana — before their senior seasons even started.

"We have plenty of talent coming back," Lavalle said. "We have some guys to replace but the guys we have are more than capable."

Two of those new starters are at catcher and second base, which will be manned by Alex Shenasi and Torin Goldstein, respectively.

"Alex is able to handle James, which is the most important part of being able to take that position," Lavelle said. "And Torin is 6-foot-3, a really athletic and tall kid. He doesn't fit the mold for a second baseman but we had to get him on the field somewhere."

Kaprielian, though, will draw most of the attention this season, the "defending" CIF Division 3 player of the year last season as a junior, when he went 11-1 with a 1.09 earned-run average.

"Where he is now compared to where he was last year, he's throwing a little bit harder (93-94 mph)," Lavalle said. "And he's picked up a cutter, so he's added a pitch to his arsenal. Now he has four legitimate pitches (fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup) he can throw at any time in the count.

"I fully expect him to have better stuff than last year, which is kind of scary to think about with how good he was last year. And now he's bigger and stronger, and honestly, even more motivated than he was last year. He's a once-in-a-career type player to coach."

Kaprielian's biggest challenge this year won't be so much opposing hitters as much as dealing with pro scouts who'd like to lure him away from UCLA with big bucks.

"He throws really hard but what pro scouts really like is his curveball and changeup," Lavelle said. "He pitched a couple weeks ago in a scouting showcase in Compton. I think six (major league) general managers were there and a scout from every team. When he threw changeups you could hear the collective 'ahhhh' from the scouts. There's a lot of kids who throw hard but not a lot of kids in high school can throw that changeup behind the fastball he has."

It's not just the difference in speed, but it's how his changeup moves that makes it so effective. Kaprielian, though, can't pitch every game. Chad Reiser was a solid No. 2 last year, but this year Lavelle will let it play out and see who emerges to take the mound when Kaprielian isn't on it.

Overall, Lavelle said the key to this season will to do what all good teams do — play well in every aspect of the game. Last year's team was outstanding defensively, but he said hitting, pitching and running the bases will be equally important.

"Our goal is to be as good as we can be," Lavelle said. "Last year, we didn't talk about the playoffs at all until we got to them. The thing I've been hammering home since we got to school in September is there is nothing to defend. It's a chance to win another one, and it starts with league."

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