Baseball Preview: Are league repeats in cards for Crescenta Valley, Flintridge Prep?

Success was as sudden as it was historic for the Flintridge Prep baseball team in 2013.

In just his first season as the Rebels’ coach, Guillermo Gonzalez navigated Flintridge Prep all the way to the CIF Southern Section Division VI semifinals.

Just a season removed from failing to make the postseason, the Rebels claimed a share of the Prep League title for the first time since 1997, won a playoff game for the first time since 1999 and advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 1960.

Crescenta Valley also claimed a share of the Pacific League title a season ago, but Falcons Coach Phil Torres believes Pasadena, a team brimming with returning starters, could be the favorite.

Still, aspirations for a league crown remain the same as always for CV.

“The goal is always to win league,” Torres said. “It never gets old.”

While Prep is likewise looking to continue the winning ways that it laid the foundation for a season past, aspirations are a bit more tempered.

As for Hoover, Glendale and St. Francis, after trying seasons in 2013, the Tornadoes, Nitros and Golden Knights all believe they’ll have better years in 2014, but the building stages are still in place.

“Our expectations are a lot different this year,” said Flintridge Prep second-year Coach Guillermo Gonzalez, whose team finished at 18-9 a season ago and in a three-way tie atop league with Pasadena Poly and Webb. “Our goal is to just make the playoffs and if we can win league along the way that’ll be great.”

Prep’s biggest obstacle will likely be in replacing the offensive production of graduates Karlsen Termini and Dylan Arya, All-Prep League picks a season ago. However, Gonzalez has his top three pitchers back from last season in seniors Brendan McKiernan, Daniel Enzminger and Cole Rademacher.

“We have the pitching, we just need the hitting,” said Gonzalez, who also expects big contributions from catcher Cole Pilar, a sophomore who started last season.

Rademacher, coming off the soccer season, is one of many Rebels who Gonzalez said is dealing with some nagging injuries coming into the season, thus, getting healthy is paramount.

But, perhaps, most importantly, the Rebels have last season to build on, one in which they realize winning league titles and winning in the postseason is now a reality.

“Winning is in their mindset now,” Gonzalez said. “Now they think they can compete against any of the teams around.”

Crescenta Valley took a share of the Pacific League title with Burbank in 2013, but did so with All-Area Baseball Player of the Year Ted Boeke leading the way. Boeke is a loss in the field, on the mound and most notably at the plate.

“It’s really tough to replace all the things Teddy did,” said Torres, whose team went 20-8 and fell in the first round of the Division II playoffs. “It’s fun to see the guys move on, but you look down the bench and you think, ‘I’d love to have some of those guys back.’”

Crescenta Valley has plenty of talent back, though, including All-Area standout Brian Gadsby, who burst onto the scene as a sophomore, going 7-6 with six complete games, two shutouts, 68 strikeouts in 75 innings and a 2.52 earned-run average.

“Brian’s gonna be the next really good CV pitcher,” Torres said. “We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had a lot of great pitchers.

“His stuff is really unique. … He’s a kid that likes the lights and likes the big games.”

While Crescenta Valley has traditionally been regarded for its pitching and defense, Torres believes those are the areas that need to be shored up, while offense, led by the likes of senior outfielder Michael Russo should be in healthy supply.

“I have confidence that he’ll tear the cover off the ball,” said Torres of Russo, who had a breakout sophomore season, but struggled a bit as a junior in hitting .271, though he had a .469 on-base percentage with 15 runs and 15 runs batted in.

Senior Austin Brines, a returning All-Area player, looks to protect Russo in the lineup hitting fourth and freshman Kewin Ledesma, a catcher and third baseman, will also hit in the heart of the order. One of the most pivotal players for the Falcons will be senior Bryan Wang, a returning all-leaguer. Wang, an outfielder, will set the table as the lead-off hitter and is currently the frontrunner to be the No. 2 starter behind Gadsby.

Searching for pitching depth and locking in starting spots around the outfield and the infield are currently quandaries the Falcons will answer in the early portion of the season.

“I’m trying to find a way to get all those bats in the lineup, but our deal is pitching and defense,” said Torres, who’s also expecting contributions from junior pitcher/outfielder Jimmy Smiley and sophomore first baseman Adrian Damla, among others. “Pitching and defense will be a work in progress.

“Guys are gonna have to fight, kick and scratch [for starting positions]. We’ll use guys anywhere and everywhere.”

Hoover looks to improve from a 6-17 season in which it went 4-10 in the Pacific League for sixth place as the majority of the Tornadoes lineup returns.

“We’ll be better than we were last year — that’s a given,” said second-year coach Brian Esquival. “We’re still a year away.”

With the exception of Orlando Marin, Hoover returns the core of last season’s squad, with a quintet of multi-position juniors leading the way in Fidel Hernandez (pitcher/shortstop/catcher), Luis Zamora (infielder/pitcher), Jonathan Ramos (center fielder/shortstop/pitcher), Pierce Velazquez (second baseman) and Javier Cisneros (outfielder/pitcher).

“Those five are gonna have to carry us,” Esquival said. “They’re gonna have to do a little of everything for us.”

Esquival and Torres both believe Pasadena could be a surprising favorite to win the Pacific League title.

Esquival also believes the Falcons and Arcadia should be among the contenders and if everything works out, his squad could vie for fourth place, though he maintains that next season could be a true breakout year for the Tornadoes.

“I’m excited from a standpoint that they all played last year and they all have experience,” Esquival said. “For the most part, everyone that is gonna play key innings for us is gonna be back next year.

“I think for us this year, if we can kind of compete for that fourth spot, it will be a good year. That’s the goal. And if we can do that, that will give everybody something to look forward to next year.”

For the fourth time in five seasons, Glendale will have a new coach in the dugout, this time it’s Alan Eberhart, the school’s former football coach. Having also coached football at Crescenta Valley, Eberhart’s last baseball coaching came in 2006 as the Falcons’ junior varsity skipper and, in the “early 80s,” he coached the CV varsity squad.

Eberhart is starting from the ground floor with the Nitros, concentrating not only on retooling the players with fundamentals, but also putting in work on the school’s field, players’ uniforms and everything else.

“We’ve got to start all over,” said Eberhart, who added that he’s left quality players at the lower levels in the hopes of building those levels up, as well, and has led the team through summer league, fall ball, etc. “We’ve done the things that they hadn’t done in the past.”

Much will ride with junior Jack Porras, a third baseman who will hit third in the order and lead the rotation as the No. 1 starter.

“We’re putting a lot on his shoulders,” said Eberhart, who will also look to senior first baseman/starting pitcher Brandon Keen, who has been much-improved. “[Keen’s] our key. If he has a big year, he really helps us.”

Senior outfielders Sean Harris and Ethan Howard, junior infielders Eric Winner, Justin French and Tyler Lousararian and junior catcher Thad Wilson are expected to make key contributions, as well. Eberhart is particularly excited about the prospects of freshman outfielder Connor Rodriguez.

While it’s a building process that the Nitros are undergoing, Eberhart believes to truly change the program, wins must come for a team that is experienced, but is yet to experience winning.

“This team was 3-19 last year with basically the same team. That’s the good and bad news,” Eberhart said. “Our goal obviously is to try to make the playoffs. We have to find a way to sneak in. We have to win some games.

“I learned from football, you can’t build unless you win. We gotta beat who we should beat and upset a few teams.”

St. Francis is coming off a season of struggles in 2013 and with youth coloring the lineup in 2014, playoff aspirations and Mission League title hopes are in check, but Golden Knights skipper Aaron Milam believes a season of improvement is at hand.

“I want to improve on last year’s record,” said Milam, whose squad went 6-19 and 1-11 in league and had nine losses by three runs or less. “We’re very young and inexperienced. But, the only way to get experience is to throw them in the fire.

“My hope is to improve on last year’s [record] and get them some experience.”

And, once more, the Mission League will likely be ablaze with talent-heavy rosters for league-favorite Loyola along with Harvard-Westlake, Alemany and Chaminade.

Milam doesn’t hesitate to say the season could be “rough,” but believes there’s talent in place to build for the future. Especially considering he has five underclassmen (four sophomores, one freshman) slated to start.

“Even though they’re young, they’re winning the games they’re supposed to win,” said Milam of his team’s offseason play from October through February. “It’s gonna be an interesting year.”

Junior center fielder Andres Kim will also get some time on the bump and will lead off in the batting order, while senior outfielder/pitcher Kevin Baker is likely to hit third and junior third baseman John Bicos will hit clean-up. Others likely to contribute are sophomore first baseman Jason Ajamian, sophomore infielder Grant Victor and freshman outfielder Brandon Lewis. Transfer Marco Rivas, a sophomore, is likely to start at shortstop, but won’t be available until April, while senior pitcher Joe Steele, who was slated to be the team’s No. 1 on the mound, could be lost for the season with an injury.

Milam believes success is likely to come with pitching and defense, with the offense manufacturing runs.

“We play a lot of small ball and push guys around,” Milam said. “We manufacture.”

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