Vaqs reload for repeat

Winning breeds winning, or so the saying goes. Glendale Community College baseball Coach Chris Cicuto can vouch for the fact that winning at least breeds strong recruiting.

Coming off the program's first-ever trip to the state tournament in its current format, on the heels of winning its first Western State Conference title since 2002, Glendale became more of a player in the offseason, as well.

"With that success, Glendale kind of got put on the map again," said Cicuto, whose team came one win away from playing for the state crown in May of 2011. "A couple of our recruits actually went up to the state championship in Bakersfield. They got a taste of it and that kind of helped seal the deal for some of the kids.

"We were able to get that upper-echelon type of recruit that before would kind of look at Glendale, but didn't really seriously consider it."

The Vaqueros will need that injection of fresh talent to stay the current course, as another byproduct of the team's success last season was the departure of 18 of 22 players, who moved on to either Division I schools or, in some cases, the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

"That was huge, losing [all those] guys was a killer," Cicuto said, "but the fact that those kids took care of it not only on the field, but also in the classroom and were able to move on, that's one of the biggest accomplishments, as well."

Glendale begins its season at 2 p.m. today at Rio Hondo College and, while Cicuto doesn't have his lineup set in stone, he's sure of who he's going to be relying on most.

Much of the Vaqueros' hopes will be pinned to a group of Division I bounce backs and junior college transfers, led by left-handed pitcher Alfonso Gonzalez coming from Loyola Marymount and utility middle-of-the order bat Austin Walker from UC Irvine, by way of Crespi High. West Los Angeles College transfer Cam Gardner will provide speed in right field and the leadoff spot.

"Those guys [with] that experience at that level is going to really provide some maturity to a really young team," Cicuto said. "[Gardner's] going to provide some power and great defense for us in the outfield."

Gonzalez joins a pitching staff featuring returners Hoover graduate John La and Greg Astor that will also be bolstered by the arrival of true freshman lefty David Lira from reigning City Section Division I champion San Fernando High.

"[Our conference] is going to come down to pitching," Cicuto said. "If we can have guys like Greg Astor, Alonzo Gonzalez and David Lira step up and do what we expect them to do, then I think we have a good chance to be in the top-three."

The Vaqueros did well recruiting out of high school, also nabbing Lira's Tigers teammate infielder David Garcia and Alemany grads center fielder/pitcher Edgar Montes, who will bat cleanup, and catcher Anthony Esparza, who will split duties behind the plate with Sam Frakes out of Maranatha.

"It's always great to get kids from [the Mission League] in for us," Cicuto said of Montes and Esparza. "And we were lucky enough to get those San Fernando guys to come in. They know what it takes to win and they wanted to kind of continue that tradition in a local community college."

Other prominent returners from last year's squad are conference gold-glove winning middle infielder Matt McCallister, outfielders Chris Stroh (Crescenta Valley grad) and Nick Bozeman, as well as infielders Ruben Padilla and Sergio Plasencia, who will look to bounce back after sitting out last season with injuries.

"We're expecting good things out of [McCallister]," Cicuto said. "He's a big part, Chris Stroh will be in the outfield and Bozeman will be DHing and playing some first this year."

Additional local flavor will be provided by outfielder Adam Ochart (Hoover) and pitchers Jason Kim (CV), Tyler Delzell (Hoover) and AJ Berglund (St. Francis).

Cicuto said that while the team doesn't have as much speed as last year, the offense will still look to pressure opposing pitchers and defenses with speed at both ends of the lineup and contact and power in the middle. Gardner is expected to lead off with table setters McCallister, Plasencia and/or Stroh to follow, preceding the big bats of Montes, Walker, Bozeman and Esparza.

WSC South Division play begins March 3 at Citrus College and concludes April 26 at L.A. Mission College. Last season came down to a five-team race for the division title entering the final day of the regular season.

"The Western State South has always been one of the top two conferences in Southern California," Cicuto said. "Pierce and College of the Canyons are always going to be tough, Valley, they're all super competitive. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day.

"Obviously, our goal is to win [conference], but we're just worried about one pitch at a time."

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