GLENDALE â€” With little exception, season after season, the Crescenta Valley High baseball team emerges as the area's best.
With a mostly young and inexperienced squad a season ago, usually forgone Falcons success was doubted, and swelled after an 0-3 start.
But Crescenta Valley picked up its seventh straight Pacific League title en route to a second-round appearance in the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs.
After more substantial losses, though, doubt as it relates to the Falcons' success this season has once more crept into place.
â€œWe're in the same boat as last year,â€ said Crescenta Valley Coach Phil Torres in regards to his Falcons, who he said have looked good in practice, but are young and largely untested as it relates to varsity game experience. â€œUntil you've gone out there in a uni and it's counted, you just don't know.â€
Torres could very well have been talking about the local baseball scene as it relates to every team, though.
With Crescenta Valley and Hoover, which is welcoming a new coach, as the only two teams to have qualified for the postseason a season ago, questions â€” and doubt â€” among area programs is abundant as local diamonds come alive this week.
Crescenta Valley must deal with the losses, among others, of All-Area Baseball Player of the Year Kris Kauppila, a two-time All-CIF pick at shortstop, and pitcher Travis Feldman, the co-Pacific League Most Valuable Player, to graduation, as well as the departure of Lonnie Kauppila, who transferred to Burbank after a falling out with Torres.
Returners with starting experience are few and far between, while a flock of freshmen present reason for optimism, but just as much uncertainty as well.
â€œThey're gonna have to improve on what they did last year,â€ said Torres of his core group of returners, which includes All-Area selections Sean Elliott, a senior who was lights out as a relief pitcher, Joe Sedano, a junior catcher who hit clean-up, and Matt Ashby, a senior outfielder who hit over .400.
Seniors Brandt Bowers, at first base, and Zack Torres, at second, return to shore up the right side of the infield, but after that, questions abound â€” especially with the pitching staff after Elliott.
â€œIt is a bigger coin toss than we've ever had before,â€ Torres said.
Torres said he has a half-dozen candidates to get starts, including senior Jake Lehne and freshman left-hander Elliott Surrey. One player that definitely won't take the mound, though, is sophomore Kyle Pomeroy, who started last season for the Falcons, but is recovering from an offseason injury and will only hit this year upon his return.
Leading the crop of underclassmen could very well be the likes of Troy Mulcahey and Nate Rousey, but nothing is set in stone as it relates to starting spots on a largely unproven squad.
â€œWe have a youthful, inexperienced team that has some talent, but it's talent at practice,â€ Torres said. â€œThere's no substitute for talent in games.â€
As for how league shapes up, going in, Torres, who thinks Arcadia will be in the thick of the hunt, isn't the only one that sees Burroughs, with a slew of returning talent, as the prohibitive favorite.
â€œOn paper, definitely, [Burroughs is] the team to beat, but you can't really ever count out CV,â€ Glendale Coach Jon Keefer said.
First-year Hoover Coach Tito Cruz knows a thing or two about the Pacific League after a storied tenure as a catcher for the Tornadoes and beyond.
He takes over for longtime Coach Jim Delzell.
â€œI'm real anxious to see how the kids perform and go from there,â€ said Cruz, who inherits a fourth-place team that advanced to the playoffs, but lost a slew of senior talent such as All-Area selections Jason Ochart and Sako Chapjian. â€œOur goal, obviously, is to make the playoffs and win league. Myself, personally, I'd like to see them play hard every single game.â€
Perhaps the biggest difference for Hoover, will come philosophically. Delzell was well-known for shying away from small ball, as well as allowing his starting pitchers to work free of trouble and finish games.
â€œI think that's probably the biggest change for the kids is our style of coaching,â€ said Cruz, who indicated one pitcher will not carry his staff and that putting pressure on the defense to get runners into scoring position will be key elements for Hoover.
There is still a Delzell in Hoover baseball, though, as junior first baseman/pitcher Tyler Delzell returns, along with Adam Ochart, a senior center fielder, as the most accomplished returnees on the team. As for Keefer and the Nitros, they begin a quest to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2003.
â€œWe're pretty young this year,â€ said Keefer, whose team finished seventh in league a year ago and boasts the return of third baseman Bennett Koss, a junior who was the team's most valuable player a season ago. â€œBut, the kids we've got, it's a great group. I'm excited.â€
While the Pacific League might be characterized by parity this season, the Mission League is always characterized as one of the best around.
â€œIt's the Mission League, it's gonna be tough regardless of who's coming back,â€ said second-year St. Francis Coach Brian Esquival, whose team finished seventh in league despite a 10-5 nonleague mark.
Six of its 10 league losses came by three runs or less, though, including both defeats against Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, which won the CIF Division III title and is ranked second in Division II this season.
â€œObviously, our goal is to make it to the playoffs,â€ said Esquival, whose team must also contend with Crespi, which was the tournament's No. 1 seed a year ago and is ranked seventh this season. â€œAfter that, anything can happen. I think our league prepares us for that so well. â€¦ That's the ultimate goal is to make it there.â€
For that to happen, Esquival believes his team will have to play mistake-free defense and do anything possible to get runners home in hopes of winning those tight ballgames.
Above all, though, will be pitching.
â€œI think our key is if our pitchers are gonna throw strikes for us,â€ Esquival said. â€œJust like any high school team, it's gonna depend on our pitching.â€
Looking to lead the staff will be 6-foot-3 junior hurler Ethan Bramschreiber.
â€œI really think he's gonna have a good year for us,â€ said Esquival, who also thinks junior AJ Berglund could pay dividends provided he's able to stay injury-free.
Offensively, returning All-Area and All-Mission League pick Nick Gentili will be looked upon to provide pop in the middle of the order.
Much like St. Francis, Flintridge Prep hasn't made it back to the postseason since 2006, something Coach â€œBuzzâ€ Cook is looking to remedy this year.
â€œLast year was disappointing,â€ said Cook, who hopes his team can return to the playoffs after finish seven games below .500 and in fourth place a year ago.
For starters, he'll need a healthy team for that to happen.
â€œIf we can keep everyone healthy, I think we should do just fine,â€ said Cook, whose team has already been hit by three significant injuries.
Still, Cook is counting on the returns of junior pitcher Ben Slyngstad and junior catcher Will Peterman, both of them All-Prep League selections last year, to bolster the team along with sophomore infielder Ben McDonald.
For the most part, the Rebels are a young squad, with only senior Alex Hurrell having experienced the playoffs. Still, Cook is excited about his group of youngsters, and despite perennial league champ Pasadena Poly and a tough Rio Hondo Prep, believes his team can contend for a postseason spot.