Baseball Preview: La Cañada, Flintridge Prep baseball hope to maintain sudden success in 2014

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.

Success and a Rio Hondo League title came just as suddenly for La Cañada High under its first-year skipper Alex Valadez. What followed was a run to the CIF Division IV second round for the first time since 2005 after the program’s first postseason win since 2009.

And now, much like Flintridge Prep, La Cañada will attempt a curtain call despite losing some valuable starters.

“I do expect to compete [for a Rio Hondo League title],” said Valadez, who led the Spartans to an outright league title in his first season a year after the team failed to qualify for the playoffs. “I think our players expect to compete.”

Valadez, who lost the likes of starting pitcher Alex Bang and closer Clayton Hermann to graduation, still believes pitching will be the strong suit for his Spartans.

“Pitching’s gonna be the strength of our team for sure,” said Valadez, who added he is still looking to fill Hermann’s closer spot.

Justin Lewis will be the ace of the staff and the senior will be an integral part to Spartans success in general, as he’ll also hit third in the lineup. Senior George Steckbeck is also back and is currently slotted as the No. 2 starter with junior Sam Gellar stepping up and into the rotation.

Another returner poised for a big season to follow a stellar junior year is Johnny Selsor, who will bat clean-up and play catcher and utility. Pitcher/outfielder Travis Clark, middle infielder Jacob Yonan and third baseman Jonah Bodmer are also expected to play crucial roles. All three are seniors, as eight of Valadez’ 19 players on the roster are playing their final seasons for the Spartans.

As for how the Rio Hondo League breaks down, Valadez believes Monrovia will be formidable as usual and San Marino will be strong, particularly with ace Jeff Bain on the mound. But Valadez believes his team has the potential to repeat.

“The goal is to play within our ability. That’s always been the goal,” Valadez said. “Our goal is to play detailed baseball and compete everyday.”

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.

“Our expectations are a lot different this year,” said 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 realized winning league titles and winning in the postseason is a reality.

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

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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