Above: Maranatha’s Dylan Covey, left, pitcher, Mark Jebbia, pitcher, Matt Chavez, 2nd base infielder, Danny Beckwith, pitcher, and infielder Schafer Chulay. (SGVN/Staff Photo by Walt Mancini)
It’s hard to believe how the high school baseball season last year went from providing suspenseful league races to an abrupt end in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.
In one day, six of seven area teams were knocked out in the first round. Pasadena Poly was the lone team to survive the first-day massacre. Alhambra and Maranatha got the job done when their first-round games got under way a few days later, but only the Minutemen and the Panthers advanced to the quarterfinals.
Pasadena Poly had a tough 83-mile ride back home after losing to Rosamond in the quarterfinals, again leaving Maranatha as the area’s lone team standing in the playoffs.
The Minutemen dispatched pesky Tahquitz to reach their second consecutive Division V finals appearance. Maranatha, riding a brilliant performance by Dylan Covey, didn’t disappoint en route to its second CIF baseball championship with a 3-1 win over Woodcrest Christian. The Minutemen return six of their nine starters from last year’s team, which is why they’re an easy No. 1 choice for the Star-News’ preseason top 10 rankings.
No. 1 Maranatha (26-5)
Covey, the reigning Star-News player of the year, is expected to be a top 10 draft pick in this year’s amateur draft. For that reason alone, the Minutemen are expected to dominate anytime Covey is on the mound. He’ll have a strong supporting cast with Schafer Chulay (third base), Mark Jebbia (shortstop), Matt Chavez (second base) and Danny Beckwith (first base/pitcher). Maranatha doesn’t have a true No. 2 pitcher like it had with Cory Popham last year.
“At first I was uneasy about not having a stand-alone No. 2 pitcher,” coach Brian DeHaan said. “But the truth is when I look at it now we’re almost stronger not having a No. 2 because we have so many arms that can go on any day. We’re not going to depend on two guys to carry us through the season.”
Maranatha will try to show the rest of the area it can win when Covey is not on the mound.
“Obviously our biggest strength is Dylan Covey, but he’s one guy,” DeHaan said. “He’s not one team. When he’s on the mound he can give us an opportunity to win every game. We won 26 games last year, Covey won 11 of them. Somehow we won 15 other games.”
Covey will bat fourth in the lineup. Aside from bringing a fastball that reaches the high 90s, Covey also brings a strong defensive arm out of center field. But that’s not all he brings.
“He adds a lot to our team and more in the intangibles,” DeHaan said. “His desire to win, desire for his teammates to play well. He can have a great game and if we lose, he’s frustrated. You don’t get that much anymore.”
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No. 2 Monrovia (17-8)
Justin De La Nuez and Nick Bueno will lead the four-time defending Rio Hondo League champions. De La Nuez is the league’s MVP. He batted .460 with eight home runs and 40 RBIs last year. Bueno’s speed will be a key factor in the infield and also could see time on the mound. Aaron Murphy (pitcher/first base), Chris Calvert (catcher), Jordan Trujillo (left field), Jimmy Bradley (right field) and Robert Nakamura (shortstop) are other key returners. It’s a balanced lineup with few to no holes opposing teams can exploit.
“I love our team,” Monrovia co-head coach Brad Blackmore said, “offensively and defensively. If we get the pitching we’re hoping to get I think we’ll be better than last year. Our lineup is deep, and that’s good for us. But pitching is the name of the game.”
Losing Richard Kilbury (UCSB) and Garrett Simpson (Citrus College) from the rotation will be tough, but Blackmore sees a lot of upside.
“These kids went 18-0 as freshmen,” he said. “We were hoping they’d come around, and they seem to be getting there.”
No. 3 St. Francis (16-13)
Knights coach Brian Esquivel said he’s excited about this year’s group that returns seven starters. Ethan Bramschreiber, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior headed to Northwestern, and AJ Burglund, a 6-3, 220 pound right fielder headed to UC Santa Barbara, are key returnees. Bramschreiber will be the ace and play first base and Burglund will be the closer. Senior Mark Saatzer is a first-team All-Mission League left fielder and senior TJ Armand will be in center field. Chris Longo and Joey Malham will see significant time on the mound.
“I’m excited about what we’re bringing to the table,” Esquivvel said. “It’s a veteran group. Last year was a pretty successful season, to finish in the top three in the Mission League is an accomplishment.”
No. 4 Arcadia (21-5)
No more Bryce Rutherford, but not to worry. Arcadia coach Nick Lemas is confident Garrett Tuck can take over as the No. 1 pitcher.
“He did a good job last year as a No. 2 and he’s gotten better,” Lemas said. “We have a lot of young guys that people don’t know about who are going to step up. Our pitching staff is going to be really good.”
The Apaches return seven starters, including Jonathan Larson and Haram Park. Losing Tim Smoley’s power bat from last year usually might be of a concern for a team in search of some offensive prowess, but Lemas doesn’t seem to make too much of it.
“We might have to play a little smaller ball this year,” Lemas said. “We lost our pop without Smoley, but hopefully we have guys who can provide that. Most of our guys this year haven’t proven it at the varsity level, but I’m very confident.”
No. 5 Alhambra (17-11)
They are the five-time defending Almont League champions, and that’s reason enough for outsiders to be going after the Moors.
“I think that it’s definitely like that in our league,” Gewecke said. “I certainly feel like people in our league seem to rise up against us because right now we’re on a pretty good run. I think our kids are grasping the responsibility of continuing to have a good program.”
Alhambra returns six starters. At the top of the list is standout pitcher Jonathan Beltran, a senior pitcher who earned league co-MVP honors last year. He had a team-low 1.44 ERA. Senior pitcher/right fielder Greg Saldate earned second team All-CIF honors last year. Gewecke also will rely on three-year letterman Christian Alas, a senior catcher getting looked at by Cal State Northridge. Vailele Peko, a shortstop, also returns and will be counted on to build from last year’s success when he batted .304 as a sophomore.
No. 6 Temple City (16-10)
The name of the game is pitching, and that’s something the Rams certainly have plenty of.
Temple City returns seven starters, including a more healthy Dusty Sanderson, Justin Smith and Branden Pultz.
Sanderson still is only 85-90 percent recovered from last year’s shoulder injury that limited his time at shortstop. He’s since moved to second base. Taking his place is Julian Jarrard, a junior who eventually will start on the mound every other day. Smith, a four-year letterman, moves back to his natural position at third base and Pultz, the team MVP last year, will see valuable time on the mound again.
“Then we have literally nine guys who are high school quality pitchers,” Temple City coach Barry Bacon said. “That’s what hurt us last year, losing key pitchers. We had guys like Pultz step up but we didn’t have the mainline starters that other teams had.”
Bacon is relishing the pitching depth.
“It’s a blessing because they’re all position guys,” he said. “They may not get a lot of innings but it’ll make us better hitters when they throw against our guys in practice.”
No. 7 La Salle (14-12)
La Salle coach Harry Agajanian is raving about his mixture of veteran leadership and young talent. The Lancers return seven starters including Michael Bottala, a senior shortstop who will lead off this season. James Harmon will be the catcher and Aaron Nauls will be at first. The Lancers did lose a stout third baseman when Johnny Auer had a near season-ending shoulder injury in December. He won’t play the outfield but will see significant time at designated hitter.
Sophomore Chris Williams, who will bat second, has made a seamless transition at third.
“He’s taken over without missing a beat,” Agajanian said.
Brian Hill will be the ace and Kenny Williams, Chris’ older brother, will be the No. 2 starter.
Standout sophomore Bowdien Derby will bat third in the lineup and start at second. He’ll also be a closer and may see some time in the outfield.
“He’s probably the best sophomore in the valley,” Agajanian said.
No. 8 Gabrielino (14-12)
The Eagles return one of the best arms in the Valley in junior Angel Acosta. He dazzled with his high fastball and heavy bat while batting .431 with 15 RBIs and nine doubles. He pitched two complete games and struck out 66 batters. Keith Clapp also returns at catcher for the three-time defending Mission Valley League champions.
Andrew Valdez will be the No. 2 starter. He had a 2.02 ERA last year. The Eagles return six starters.
No. 9 San Marino (17-8)
It’s going to be a challenging year for Titans coach Mack Paciorek. San Marino lost six starters from last year’s team, including standout pitcher Andrew Sloan and catcher Mike Thompson. Stevie Yortsos and
Justin Joe Forgatch are the lone returnees, but don’t look for Yortsos in the lineup just yet. He broke his hand during football and won’t be ready to play until spring break.
“It’s the year of, `Who’s going to step up?’ ” Paciorek said.
Forgatch will man first base and Chris Warren, a No. 3 pitcher last year, will be the ace. Everett Phillips will be No. 2 on the staff.
“We’re going to have to bite, claw our way into the Rio Hondo League,” Paciorek said. “Our future looks bright, but we have to worry about the present. It’ll be a challenge for the coaching staff to find the right fit in the right places.”
No. 10 Pasadena (15-12)
The Bulldogs return seven starters from last year’s team that made some noise late in the season. Chris Rucker is a junior center fielder in his third year with the program. Robert Lain is another three-year letterman who will see time at just about every position but primarily will catch. Adrian Carrillo is at shortstop and will bat fifth in the lineup. Losing Nathan Bernstein last year will be tough for the Bulldogs. He provided stellar defense at catcher, a power bat and senior leadership.
“He was Mr. Everything,” Pasadena coach Mike Parisi said. “We lost not only his ability but his leadership.
“I still think we have a lot of proving to do to be a respectable program. We need to stay healthy and play together to be successful.”