By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
ALHAMBRA – In less than four years, Alhambra High School’s Juan Morales has transformed from a pudgy catcher to the best defensive first baseman in Moors coach Steve Gewecke’s 17 seasons at the school.
It says a lot about Morales, who prior to moving to first base his sophomore year had never played the position. It speaks volumes for his strong work ethic, and that’s evident by his appearance: The senior captain has dropped 60 pounds since last November.
It was long before hitting the treadmill and eating healthier that Morales became the role model he is today. He’s helped lead Alhambra to its first quarterfinals appearance since 1987 as the Moors visit Lancaster on Friday in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.
Morales had a chance to play varsity as a sophomore.
“Coach said if I can hit that he’d find a place for me,” Morales said and, sure enough, first base became a competition.
Morales would have to compete against upperclassmen, so he went to work. After Alhambra practices, he’d head to Almansor Park with his father, Juan Sr., and younger brother Alex.
The two youngsters would work out fielding grounders for about an hour in hopes of familiarizing themselves with the infield.
Not long before the 2010 season started, Morales was named the starting first baseman.
Gewecke calls Morales the best defensive first baseman he’s ever had, quite a statement from a veteran coach.
“We thought he had soft hands,” Gewecke said. “He’s a big kid but he moves well. I’ve had some good ones at first base and I think he’s the best defensively.”
Morales believes hard work produces strong results, and he’s seen it first-hand with his father being a prime example. His dad came to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, about 20 years ago and it wasn’t long before he rose up the ranks, going from pizza delivery driver to owning his very own franchise of Little Caesars Pizza. He’s close to owning a second.
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“Seeing my dad work hard pushes me to work hard,” Morales said. “My example is there every day.”
From early on, Gewecke could see he was special.
“From the day he walked in he was a hard worker,” Gewecke said. “(His dad’s) taught Juan well about being a worker and doing it every day.”
Judging by Morales’ schedule, he doesn’t believe in breaks. After practice he heads to the gym for a couple hours to maintain a toned 190-pound frame. He also has a fifth period weightlifting class.
“I watch what I eat now,” Morales says. “I have breakfast, no snacks and eat a healthy lunch and nothing past seven.”
Morales also credits his mother for his communication skills.
“She always says to speak up and know when to speak up,” Morales said. “Knowing how to put that together helped me.”
Morales, along with Juan Crespo, is one of two captains this season. It’s the second season in a row Morales has carried the captain duties.
“It’s uncomfortable to lead,” Gewecke said. “But he doesn’t mind telling a kid to mind your manners and work hard and step it up. Those are things you have to do because they’re not always going to listen to a coach. If it comes from a player it resonates.”
Morales’ weight loss has helped him hone his skills. He caught a hard line drive last week for a quick out.
“If that was last year it probably goes off the tip of my glove,” Morales said.
“Now he’s quicker,” Gewecke said. “With that he’s gotten stronger, too.”
Morales is batting .380 with 24 RBIs and seven doubles.
“I thought he was good his sophomore and junior year,” Gewecke said. “I think he’s kicked it up a notch his senior year. He seems to pick everything. He gets off the bag and tags.”
The new look also has opened doors for Morales, who won’t have to concentrate solely on first base when he attends Rio Hondo College next year. It’s brought renewed confidence.
“Now I can look at the outfield and play there because I’m faster,” he said. “I don’t have to just be a first baseman. I know I’m average in height. Most coaches want someone who is probably 6-foot-5.
“But I have heart and can work my (butt) off.”
And there’s no denying that.