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Prep Rally: It’s championship week for baseball and softball

JSerra pitcher Gage Jump.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, and welcome to Prep Rally. My name is Eric Sondheimer. It’s championship week for baseball and softball. Last year at this time, everyone was hunkered down at home dealing with COVID-19 restrictions. The spring season had been canceled. The seniors on these teams finally get their chance to play for a championship.

Baseball

JSerra pitcher Gage Jump.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The Southern Section Division 1 semifinals couldn’t be any better. The top four seeds have all made it to the semifinals. On Tuesday, it will be No. 1 JSerra at No. 4 Ayala and No. 3 Orange Lutheran at No. 2 Harvard-Westlake. The winners will advance to Saturday night’s championship game at Cal State Fullerton.

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Ayala faces the toughest task having to take on JSerra ace Gage Jump, who has been close to unbeatable and unhittable at times.

In Division 2, Camarillo will have ace Brian Uribe ready to go against Trabuco Hills. No. 1 Thousand Oaks, which received three home runs in the quarterfinals from Roc Riggio, will play at Bonita.

In the City Section Open Division semifinals on Wednesday, it will be El Camino Real at Cleveland and Birmingham at San Pedro. Birmingham upset No. 1-seeded Granada Hills 9-2. The Patriots are the three-time defending City champs.

Here’s the link to this week’s semifinals schedule.

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Freshman phenoms

Freshman Bryce Rainer of Harvard-Westlake struck out nine in five innings to improve to 8-0.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

What a day it was on Tuesday for freshman baseball players.

Corona had two freshmen key a 4-3 playoff win over King. Catcher Josh Springer had two hits and two RBIs and pitcher Ethan Schiefelbein struck out 14 in six innings.

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Then there was 15-year-old freshman Bryce Rainer of Harvard-Westlake. To understand what Rainer has accomplished in his first high school baseball season, you have to be reminded that two first-round draft picks out of the same school, Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito, never reached a similar skill level as freshmen.

“I can’t think of a freshman who’s had better numbers,” said Harvard-Westlake athletic director Matt LaCour, who coached Flaherty and Giolito.

In a second-round Southern Section Division 1 playoff game, Rainer became the first Harvard-Westlake freshman to earn a playoff victory. He struck out nine in five innings and gave up one hit in a 13-0 victory over Arcadia. He’s 8-0 this season and batting .391. The impact he’s had speaks for itself in comparison to pitchers Flaherty and Giolito. Flaherty was 6-2 with a 2.51 ERA as a freshman in 2012. Giolito was 1-0 with a 5.91 ERA in 2009.

Here’s a look at how good Rainer might be. Rainer will be on the mound on Tuesday when Harvard-Westlake hosts Orange Lutheran in the Division 1 semifinals.

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Top coaches step down

There are some very good coaches stepping down and heading to either retirement or passing the torch to others.

Casey Burrill of West Ranch announced last week that he would become an assistant to new head coach Ryan Lindgreen. He started the West Ranch program and was head coach for 15 years. A former USC player, he helped lead West Ranch to success on and off the field. He was one of the first to create a team website to publicize his program and players.

Dan Henley has retired at Glendora. He completed his 30th year coaching high school baseball. He won eight league titles in 22 years at Glendora, including a 2010 Southern Section title.

Steve Gewecke of Alhambra has stepped down. He had more than 400 victories in 26 years of coaching at Alhambra. He was a pillar in his community,

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Slugger making impact

Gabe Juarez of Cleveland has hit four home runs.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Gabe Juarez, who is 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, has hit four home runs while playing in his first season of varsity baseball as a 16-year-old junior for Reseda Cleveland.

“This guy has probably the most power I’ve seen in all my days of coaching,” Cleveland coach Sid Lopez said.

During batting practice, he has been hitting so many baseballs into a construction area in left field that Lopez looks like he’s on an Easter egg hunt searching for them.

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“We can’t find the baseballs,” he said. “He’s probably going to make Cleveland money in the long run because if he makes it, I expect him to donate baseballs for the ones we lost.”

Here’s the profile on Juarez, who will be in action Wednesday when Cleveland hosts El Camino Real in the City Section Open Division semifinals.

Softball

El Camino Real softball pitcher Jillian Kelly.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Did anyone think Norco wouldn’t win the Southern Section Division 1 championship in softball?

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Esperanza apparently believed in itself, because the Aztecs defeated Norco 7-2 in the semifinals behind pitcher Emily Gomez.

The Division 1 championship game is set for Friday in Irvine: Esperanza vs. Eastvale Roosevelt.

Here’s the link to the Southern Section finals schedule on Friday and Saturday.

The City Section is holding its semifinals Tuesday, featuring Granada Hills at San Pedro and Carson at El Camino Real.

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NCAA champions

Tiare Jennings from St. Anthony was a key player for NCAA champion Oklahoma.
Shortstop Tiare Jennings of St. Anthony has been named the Gatorade state player of the year in softball.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Oklahoma won the NCAA softball championship, and there were a group of Southern California products making major contributions.

Earning a ring were Tiare Jennings (Long Beach St. Anthony), Taylon Snow (Chino Hills), Kenzie Hansen (Norco) and Zaida Puni (St. Anthony).

Jennings was the national freshman of the year with 92 RBIs.

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Basketball

Sierra Canyon's Amir Bailey.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The Southern California basketball regional pairings were released on Sunday, and 29-0 Torrey Pines was seeded No. 1 in the seven-team Open Division boys bracket. Torrey Pines gets a bye and will play the winner of Damien-Santa Maria St. Joseph on Thursday. No. 6 Santa Ana Mater Dei will play at No. 3 Etiwanda and No. 7 Birmingham is at No. 2 Sierra Canyon on Tuesday. The championship game will be Saturday. Southern Section Open Division champion Corona Centennial chose not to participate so that players could participate in a travel ball tournament in Arizona this weekend.

In Open Division girls, a rematch is looming between Mater Dei and Corona Centennial. Mater Dei is seeded No. 1 and drew a bye. The Monarchs will face the winner of Cathedral Catholic-Harvard-Westlake. No. 2 Centennial hosts La Jolla Country Day and will face the winner of Clovis West-Bonita Vista.

Here’s the link to Southern California regional playoff brackets.

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Centennial rises up

Lebron James, left, and Drake watch the Sierra Canyon Southern Section Open Division final.
LeBron James and Drake sat courtside at the Open Division final.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Amid the celebrities, Corona Centennial emerged victorious on Sierra Canyon’s home court to win the Southern Section Open Division championship, ending the Trailblazers’ unbeaten playoff streak at 21 games.

The buzz was everywhere after Bronny James was cleared to play for Sierra Canyon. LeBron James and Drake showed up right before player introductions. Centennial players loved it.

Corona Centennial players celebrate their win over Sierra Canyon for the Southern Section Open Division title.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

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Centennial’s outstanding guard trio of Kylan Boswell, Donovan Dent and Jared McCain could not be stopped. Amari Bailey was magnificent for Sierra Canyon, scoring 33 points.

One of the most memorable moments was Centennial coach Josh Giles twice calling timeouts in the final minute to prevent Centennial turnovers.

Here’s the link to a column from the game.

Ed Azzam calls it a career

Ed Azzam announced he will retire as Westchester basketball coach next week after regionals.
Ed Azzam announced he will retire as Westchester basketball coach next week after regionals.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

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“It’s time.”

That’s what Ed Azzam of Westchester told me Saturday night after informing his team he would be retiring as head coach after this week’s regional playoffs. The Comets had just lost to Birmingham 80-72 in the City Section Open Division championship.

Azzam said he had informed his assistant coaches a month earlier of his decision. His teams have won 15 City Section championships since he took over in 1979. He has a 932-286 record, having passed Crenshaw’s Willie West as the winningest coach in City history. West had 16 City titles, leaving Azzam one short. He has always said the numbers mean nothing to him. Azzam already has been inducted into the City Section Sports Hall of Fame.

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Azzam’s team once went 0-10 in league play in 1982-83. He didn’t win his first championship until 1991. He’s been all about teaching defense and getting his players to play hard. And it’s worked. You can now add legendary before mentioning his name from now on.

The big question is whether former Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani, now at Rolling Hills Prep, will try to get Azzam as an assistant coach in his retirement. Stay tuned. As for possible replacements at Westchester, the first name mentioned by some in the program is Taft’s Derrick Taylor.

Here’s the link to video when Azzam set the City Section record with victory No. 804.

Here’s a 2009 story on Azzam and his son playing for championships.

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Here’s a 2005 story on Amir Johnson leading Westchester to the state championship.

Here’s a 1991 story on how Azzam made a basketball player ineligible by failing him in a math class and motivated him to get better.

Westchester is the No. 1 seed in the Division 1-AA regional playoffs. It plays on Thursday against the winner of San Marcos-Ribet Academy game. A win would make the 1-AA regional final on Saturday night the last game for Azzam.

Simpson/Higgins show the way

In an era where players and families have little patience and expect immediate gratification or they’re on the move, KJ Simpson and Keith Higgins Jr. showed everybody that old school still works. They arrived at West Hills Chaminade four years ago, became top players and never left. They celebrated winning a Southern Section Division 1 championship in their final year together.

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They placed their trust in Chaminade and coach Bryan Cantwell. Now they will be hometown heroes in the years ahead as community members root them on at Colorado and Lehigh, respectively. They will be admired for their loyalty, their commitment and their understanding that if you work hard, good things can happen.

They get to play in this week’s 1-A regional with Chaminade seeded No. 1.

The Kitani factor

Rolling Hills Prep coach Harvey Kitani.
(Nick Koza)

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Harvey Kitani spent 35 years teaching and coaching basketball at Fairfax High, winning three City titles. Then he retired from teaching and took over the program at Rolling Hills Prep. He won his fourth Southern Section title in five seasons when his team defeated Los Altos in the 2AA final.

Two rising players, junior guard Benny Gealer and sophomore Kenny Manzi, led Rolling Hills Prep to victory. Next season they’ll be tested in Division 1.

But never doubt what Kitani can build.

Ryan Grande makes impact

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After three years of starring at La Canada, Ryan Grande made the decision to transfer to Sierra Canyon with no guarantee there would be a basketball season, let alone that he would start for the talented Trailblazers.

He took a leap of faith and it paid off. He has averaged 10 points a game and shown his three-point shooting ability.

Here’s the link to Grande’s appearance on Friday Night Live and his interview.

Here comes Jazz Gardner

Jazz Gardner is a 7-foot sophomore basketball player from Los Altos High.
Jazz Gardner is a 7-foot sophomore basketball player from Los Altos High.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

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There is a name that is quietly circulating around Los Angeles. It belongs to a lanky, crafty 7-foot center who can run the court, distribute the basketball and create his own shots, but even with all the right attributes, sometimes players like sophomore Jazz Gardner can fall under the radar.

It’s a good thing that attention doesn’t appear to matter to Jazz. Neither do points or any other stat in the box score. His eyes have always been on winning, pushing the Los Altos Conquerors to reach the Southern Section championships and state title games in the next two years.

If being a 7-footer wasn’t enough, Jazz is still growing into his body and will almost certainly add more muscle to his physique. Physical strength will enable him to expand his dominance to the paint.

“A tall, lanky guy makes you think of Kevin Durant, but not quite there yet,” Los Altos coach Jeff Lucas said of Jazz, who turned 17 in March. “He’s like some of the better point-center, point-forward type guys like a Nikola Jokić. … He can do a little bit of everything, he’s pretty smart with the ball and sees the floor really well.”

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Here’s the link to profile on Gardner.

Game of the year

For pure drama and excitement, nothing will top the Southern Section Open Division girls’ final between Mater Dei and Corona Centennial. It went to overtime, and Nalani White of Mater Dei made a three with one second left for an 83-80 victory.

The quality of the game, the talent of the players and the great coaching made it the best girls’ basketball game I’ve ever seen. McDonald’s All-American Brooke Demetre had 28 points and just refused to let Mater Dei lose. Cal-bound Jayda Curry made all 10 of her free throws for Centennial. UCLA commit Londynn Jones of Centennial made all eight of her free throws and had 25 points. It was like a future Pac-12 all-star game with so many top players coming through again and again in a fast and furious competition.

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It was the sixth Southern Section championship at Mater Dei for coach Kevin Kieran and 12th overall.

It’s a special year for girls’ basketball in terms of talent in Southern California. Four were named McDonald’s All-Americans and combined with young players, it helped lead to the game of the year.

Golf

Aiden Canada (second from right) poses with his Vista Murrieta teammates after team won Division 5 golf title.
(Darren Canada)

Thanks to cooperation among coaches, Vista Murrieta won the Southern Section Division 5 golf championship with the help of a backup quarterback.

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Aiden Canada, who had to leave several practices during the spring football season for golf tournaments, shot a three-under-par 69 to lead the Broncos at Soule Park Golf Course in Ojai. They won the team championship with a score of 376. Moorpark claimed second at 388, and San Marcos took third at 395. Glenn Meadows shot a 71 and Jaden Huggins had a 72 to support Canada, a junior.

“You have to look out for kids’ best interests,” Vista Murrieta football coach Eric Peterson said.

Here’s the link to golf results.

Individual champions

Kamron Hopson of Redlands and Lauren Sammon of Vista Murrieta won the Southern Section boys and girls individual championships.

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Also eight teams advanced to the Southern California Golf Assn. tournament.

Here’s the link for results.

Lacrosse

Loyola won the first Southern Section Division 1 boys’ championship with a victory over Foothill.

The Cubs had been a dominant program while waiting for the Southern Section to finally have enough teams to hold a team championship.

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Matteo Silvestri scored four goals. Aidan Lee added three goals and Owen Gaffney two.

Foothill won the Division 1 girls’ crown over Newbury Park.

Track

Servite's Max Thomas takes the baton for the final leg of the 1,600-meter relay.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

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The Southern Section track and field season came to an end Saturday with four divisional championship meets. Multisport athletes came through with huge performances. Here’s the link.

Max Thomas of Servite, Domani Jackson of Santa Ana Mater Dei and Rodrick Pleasant of Gardena Serra were speedsters among the boys’ ranks. The fastest of all was Rancho Cucamonga’s Tristyn Flores, who ran a wind-aided 10.35 seconds in the Division 1 100 meters.

Paige Sommers of Westlake won the Division 1 pole vault, her third pole vault crown. Raykiyat Olukoju of Riverside North became the state leader in the 100 with a winning time of 11.67 (+3.5) in Division 2. Audrey Suarez of Mayfield set a Division 4 record in the 1,600, winning in 4:45.59.

The City Section will hold its finals Tuesday and Wednesday for girls and boys at Birmingham.

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From the archives: Lucas Giolito

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito.
Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito and Harvard-Westlake graduate.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I’ve been watching Lucas Giolito pitch since he was a tall, awkward sophomore pitching for Harvard-Westlake. The potential was always there and as the velocity of his fastball went higher and higher as did his ability to throw strikes, his future was destined. But it didn’t happen simply by ability. Tommy John surgery forced him to start over right after graduating in 2012. Yes, he was a first-round draft pick despite his injury, but hard work is the main reason he made it all the way back.

I’ll never forget the day he was injured. It was the first game of his senior year against Alemany. He pulled himself out in the seventh inning. His coach, Matt LaCour, tried to initially hide the injury with so many of scouts and fans in attendance to see his ace’s 101-mph fastball. He wanted to protect his senior, saying it was a groin injury. Later he apologized. For Giolito to still get his bonus money was a tribute to how much the scouts believed in him for his work ethic and commitment to recover.

Now Giolito’s an All-Star pitcher for the White Sox, dedicated family man and strong supporter of those who helped him get this far.

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Retired coaches play poker again

Former coaches resume their monthly poker game. Rick Prizant (left), Jim Woodard, Al Bennett and Richard Doran.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Red, blue and brown chips covered the dining room table. These weren’t potato chips. They were poker chips worth five cents, 10 cents and 25 cents for a “high roller” card game among a group of mostly retired high school coaches who have been gathering once a month for years.

This game deserved to be sponsored by Pfizer or Moderna, since it was the first one in 14 months, with the participants fully vaccinated. COVID-19 forced them to hunker down at home. Now they were talking nonstop about memorable games of the past, debating top players and making wisecracks about anything and everything without needing to wear a mask. It was a glimpse of normalcy.

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“It’s nice to be back,” said 76-year-old Al Bennett, a former basketball coach at Lake Balboa Birmingham and North Hollywood. “Everybody is healthy. That’s the main thing.”

“Hey, I’m still alive,” said 81-year-old Jim Woodard, a former Taft High basketball coach whose Woodland Hills house served as the gathering place for the resumption of monthly games.

Here’s the link to column on life moving forward.

Recommendations

From the Modesto Bee, a story on the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section’s Executive Committee meeting later this month to discuss whether nine schools that formed a club football league will face punishment.

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From the San Jose Mercury News, a sportswriter cherishes the final season of high school sports for his daughter.

From the Washington Post, a story on a coaching change at basketball power DeMatha leads to a discussion on race.

Tweets you might have missed

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Until next time...

Have a question, comment or something you’d like to see in a future Prep Rally newsletter? Email me at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latsondheimer.

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