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Column: How Santa Margarita High has become a catcher’s paradise

Santa Margarita High catchers (from left) Luke Lavin, Blake Balsz and Bryce Humphry pose for a photo.
Santa Margarita High catchers (from left) Luke Lavin, Blake Balsz and Bryce Humphry will be signing with Stanford, UCLA and USF, respectively this week.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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As early college signing day approaches this week, there’s a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of high school baseball talent taking place at catcher for Santa Margarita High.

The Eagles have three catchers from the class of 2023 who could become major leaguers. The fact Blake Balsz (UCLA), Luke Lavin (Stanford) and Bryce Humphry (San Francisco) all arrived as freshmen and stuck it out competing for four years, with each earning a college scholarship at the catcher position is rare.

They’ll be signing letters of intent Wednesday.

“It’s crazy,” Balsz said. “Luke, Bryce and I have been competing every year since the first practice of freshman year. It’s never been dull. We’ve enjoyed the grind. All we want for each other is the best because we have same exact goals.”

“Competition between us made us better and each is such a competitor that we welcomed it,” Lavin said.

“It’s been a long process,” Humphry said. “We’re all good friends and it worked out.”

There must be something coming out of the drinking fountains at Santa Margarita because there’s a fourth senior catcher, Charlie Lapp, who also figures to be playing college baseball, and a fifth catcher, junior Jake Lavin, the younger brother of Luke, has committed to Cal.

The catchers were told to go behind home plate during tryouts in summer 2019. Only then did they grasp how much talent there was.

“It was, ‘Wow, you have to compete and play hard to show you want to start,’” Balsz said. “We all worked hard and made the team and fed off each other and have been great teammates.”

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Added Humphry: “This is going to be a dogfight. It was and has been.”

Balsz and Lavin played junior varsity in 2020 while Humphry was on the freshman team. Ever since, Balsz and Lavin have been sharing catcher duties at the varsity level while also playing other infield positions. Humphry learned to play outfield but caught so well this past summer that USF made him an offer.

“I got a very different perspective of the game playing outfielder and felt it helped my game get better,” Humphry said. “It was nice to contribute in a different way and become more of a utility player.”

Santa Margarita coach Chris Malec has been thrilled that all three decided to stick it out and use the competition among themselves to improve as catchers.

“It was certainly a big surprise knowing each one would be a big part of our program,” Malec said. “It was exciting and you’re seeing them come into their own developing as young men and good baseball players. They come from good families, high scholar kids, very selfless. As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. They’ve pushed each other. They thrive on the competition. They’ve worked together for a team-first mindset.”

In recent high school baseball history, Studio City Harvard-Westlake had three pitchers from its 2012 team become first-round draft picks and major league pitchers — Lucas Giolito, Max Fried and Jack Flaherty. But they weren’t from the same graduating class. Chatsworth had two first-round picks in 2007, Mike Moustakas and Matt Dominguez.

The Santa Margarita trio is expected to be playing in college before trying to turn pro. Imagine the fun Malec will have going to watch a Stanford-UCLA game or Stanford-USF game and perhaps seeing two of his catchers facing off.

“You look at them like your own kids,” he said. “You sit back and enjoy the moment and watch it and celebrate their success like it’s one of your own kids.”

By staying and competing every season against his friends, Balsz said he learned lessons that he will use for the rest of his life.

“It’s helped me to compete and never give up and trust your ability and keep grinding,” he said. “It’s taught me a lesson, ‘Don’t take the easy way out.’ For me, if I have competition, it helps me play better.”

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