It was a tough 2018 baseball season for La Cañada High.
After graduating a number of seniors, the Spartans struggled to regroup to compete against rigorous Rio Hondo League opponents due to lack of depth.
Injuries also affected the squad, which caused coach Matt Whisenant to shuffle the lineup around that put players in sometimes unfamiliar positions down the stretch.
This year, however, La Cañada is ready to bounce back with a deeper bullpen and a more experienced squad in hopes to regain the league title.
Flintridge Prep qualified for the playoffs, while St. Francis continued to reshape its program.
Here is a closer look at the teams.
“Last year was tough,” said Whisenant, who enters his third year as coach of his alma mater. “When you look at all the scores from last year, it kind of came down to one little inning. We weren’t losing by a bunch to league opponents.
“It was either one run, two runs or something happened toward the end where we kind of collapsed and that cost us. I think this year, having some arms that can give us innings gives us some flexibility as far as how we use different guys in different situations.”
The Spartans enjoyed an undefeated 2017 league campaign to claim the Rio Hondo League crown, then advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division V quarterfinal where they lost 2-1 to Campbell Hall.
The playoff run bumped La Cañada up to Division III in 2018, but the Spartans failed to make the playoffs and finished 12-14 and 4-8 in league for fourth place.
The team hit .272 with a .367 on-base percentage and recorded a 2.85 earned-run average.
“If everyone is on course and is healthy, I think we have a really good chance of doing some damage,” Whisenant said. “I like our chances, but that’s the key. We just have to make sure we stay healthy because our schedule is not going to be light. We’re playing tough teams and we’re doing it on purpose to be more prepared for league.”
As usual, the Rio Hondo League will boast tough competition, with the likes of league champion Monrovia, Temple City and San Marino.
“I think to shake things up in league and we need to be able to execute and I think it’s going to come down to the little things, whether it’s moving a guy over, making a quality pitch or solid base-running,” Whisenant said. “Any time you play in league, especially when you play a big program like Monrovia, you’re going to have a game that’s tight because Monrovia is well-coached.”
Whisenant has set up a tougher schedule that includes Division III opponent Westlake, to get his team battle-tested.
“I really don’t want to sugar-coat the schedule and then feel like the Rio Hondo League is tougher,” Whisenant said. “If we have to take a few losses from Crescenta Valley and learn from it, I’d rather do that then not be ready for the likes of Monrovia, San Marino or Temple City.”
The Spartans have answers to some of last season’s troubles, starting with a deeper pitching core. They return 10 players, including five seniors.
Led by senior right-handed pitcher Ryan Graves, the Spartans boast a young rotation. Last season, Graves posted a 2-7 record with a 2.43 earned-run average and 44 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings.
Sophomore Evan Umland returns to back Graves and can also play shortstop and senior Connor Buchanan will be looked upon to close out games.
Buchanan, also an outfielder, registered a 2.14 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings, He also hit .382 (26 for 68) for 11 runs, 17 runs batted in and 14 extra-base hits.
If healthy, the return of another basketball player in senior Zach Freehan will add pitching depth as well, but the right-hander will also be clutch as the Spartans’ first baseman.
“I think he’s the best defensive first baseman in our league,” Whisenant said. “One big target, which is nice, but he does a great job of locking down the first base position and helping our infielders. He’s got a lot of experience and we expect him to have a really good season before he graduates, for sure.”
The bullpen’s strength already has enough experience to take on a rigorous season, but the most promising aspect of the pitching contingent comes with freshman lefty Luke Fogarty.
Along with Feehan, sophomore Jakob Torres will play in the infield.
Torres joins Umland and senior Tai Walton in the infield, backed by Buchanan and junior Ian Tinkham in the outfield.
Walton, a Rio Hondo League first-team selection last season, hit .392 (31 for 79) for a .525 on-base percentage with 23 runs, 10 RBI, 19 walks and 14 stolen bases.
To bolster to the Spartans bats this season will be junior Michael Lauenstein. Though he played just 10 games, the junior hit .476 in 21 at-bats for 10 hits, three runs and four RBI.
A new chapter begins for Flintridge Prep. For the first time since winning the CIF Southern Section Division VI championship in 2015, the Rebels won’t have a player on the diamond from that squad.
Still, there’s reason for coach Guillermo Gonzalez to stay positive.
“You just try to keep building your program and see what happens,” said Gonzalez, whose team finished 14-9, 6-6 in the Prep League last season for third place and lost to Highland in the first round of the Division V playoffs. “We’re going to be pretty young, but things are looking good.
“We try to build with who we have and we think we can contend for the league championship. We have the players, but we just don’t have the depth.”
The Rebels will rely on senior pitcher Thomas Kosakowski, junior infielder Ben Grable, junior outfielder Max Gitlin and freshman outfielder/pitcher Spencer Seid to pave the way. Grable (.368 batting average) was named to the All-Area team last season.
There’s plenty of excitement for the Golden Knights, who look to have a nice blend of talent.
The Golden Knights finished 9-20, 4-14 in the competitive Mission League for sixth place last season and missed the postseason. Since then, the Golden Knights have stockpiled some talent with the goal of making a move upward in a league that includes traditional powerhouses Harvard-Westlake, Chaminade, Alemany and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
“We are going to play a very competitive schedule that will get us ready for league,” St. Francis coach Aaron Dorlarque. “We know our league will be loaded with talent, especially the junior class, and we have some good players as well.
“We’re only going to have three seniors. I think we’ll be pretty loaded on offense and we’ll play good defense. We might be a little light on pitching, but we do have guys capable of throwing strikes.”