Baseball Preview: Bishop Amat heads pack of talented baseball teams in the San Gabriel Valley

Note: Softball Preview will run on Tuesday, Feb. 28

From left, Rio Ruiz, Daniel Zamora and Adam Alcantara help make Bishop Amat one of the top high school baseball teams in the Southland. (Keith Birmingham / Staff Photographer)

Standout players, teams grace the San Gabriel Valley in this year’s baseball preivew

By Fred J. Robledo, Staff Writer
It’s just a start, but what a way to get the 2012 high school baseball season under way.
On March 1, at 6 p.m., defending CIF-Southern Section Division 4 champion Bishop Amat goes to Mater Dei to take on the Monarchs, Maxpreps’ second-ranked team in the nation.

On Friday at 6, the second annual Dicks Sporting Goods tournament begins and features area heavyweights Damien and Bonita meeting at Bonita.

The Valley has been blessed over the years with superstar talents such as Michael Young (Bishop Amat), Jason Giambi (South Hills), Mark McGwire (Damien), Cecil Fielder (Nogales), Fred Lynn (El Monte), Rick Aguilera (Edgewood), Tom Brunansky (West Covina), Corey Lidle (South Hills) and many others who have gone on to play major league baseball.

Who’s next?

Perhaps it will be Bishop Amat’s Rio Ruiz, South Hills’ C.J. Saylor and Los Altos’ Joe Munoz, all of whom all ranked in Baseball America’s list of top 100 seniors in 2012.

Or how about Bonita’s Justin Garza, who recently was clocked with a 94 mph fastball and is back after one of the best high school baseball seasons in Southern Section history. He’ll play for Cal State Fullerton next year.

Ruiz, the reigning CIF-SS Division 4 Player of the Year, ESPN California junior Player of the Year and Tribune Player of the Year, already has signed a national letter of intent with USC and is projected to be a first-round draft pack in this spring’s Major League Baseball First-Year
Player Draft.

Saylor and Munoz have committed to San Diego State, more proof that this is one of the most highly anticipated baseball seasons in recent memory.

As always, we begin with The Tribune’s annual top 10 preview. It’s loaded with heavyweights, starting with the defending champion. (To continue reading, click thread)

San Gabriel Valley Tribune Baseball Top Ten
1. Bishop Amat (29-4)
2. South Hills (21-5)
3. Bonita (27-5)
4. Damien (17-13)
5. Covina (16-11)
6. Los Altos (18-10)
7. Glendora (17-7-1)
8. Diamond Bar (15-12)
9. San Dimas (19-9-1)
10. Charter Oak (10-14)


1. Bishop Amat (29-4)

Ruiz, who batted .455 with 35 RBIs, 14 doubles and three home runs, including a towering shot in the Lancers’ 7-0 victory over Palm Desert at Dodger Stadium to help the Lancers claim the division title, is the area’s poster boy and already one of the best players the Valley ever has produced.

Ruiz has been on several U.S. national age-group teams and committed to USC during his freshman year.

Few players have had so much hype since arriving his freshman year, and Ruiz has lived up to all of it.

“He would be among the best freshmen I ever coached at USC and I was there 11 years,” Bishop Amat coach Andy Nieto said of his senior. “I don’t know many 17-year-olds who can handle the pressure he’s had to deal with and he’s done it like a professional. He’s stayed humble and delivered at every big stage he’s been at, so yes, he’s as good as any high school player I’ve been around.”

Ruiz will return at third base and will pitch much more than the 11 innings he threw last year. He will become Amat’s new closer, a scary thought considering he struck out 18 in 11 innings last year without giving up an earned run.

Amat’s ace is senior left-hander Daniel Zamora, who signed a letter of intent with New York’s Stony Brook University.

Zamora threw the game of his life in the championship at Dodger Stadium. He did not allow a run in 6 2/3 innings before giving way to David Berg to close it out.

Zamora was 9-1 with a 1.43 ERA and 48 strikeouts and will be counted on even more to deliver in big games.

Also expected to contribute is sophomore pitcher Andrew Eppenbach, who verbally has committed to San Diego State and sophomore pitcher Alex Garcia.

“We like our team, we think it’s a talented team,” Nieto said.

There also is senior Andrew Medina at short, and others expected to contribute big for the Lancers, who are on virtually every top 10 poll in Southern California, something Nieto has come to expect.

“I think our program has risen to a level where it’s respected nationally,” Nieto said. “It’s great to be included in all those conversations. It’s great for the Amat community and the interest it brings to the San Gabriel Valley.”

2. South Hills (21-5)

The Huskies have as good a one-two punch as anyone in the Valley with catcher Saylor and shortstop/pitcher Ty France, who both helped the Huskies win a division title as freshmen and would love to close out their senior years with championships after a disappointing first-round exit in last year’s Division 2 playoffs.

“Let’s hope so,” South Hills coach Kevin Smith said of winning another title. “As a duo they’re probably as talented as anyone I’ve ever had. They’ve had to put up with me for four years, but I’m real blessed to have them both. They have a tremendous work ethic and a great future ahead of them.”

South Hills tied Chino Hills for the Sierra League title and is favored along with Damien this year.

Like Ruiz, Saylor’s major league prospects are tremendous, especially since he’s a catcher. France, who also will be important on the mound, is heading to San Diego State along with Saylor.

“C.J.’s a very humble kid who already has a lot of accolades, but none of it has gone to his head,” Smith said. “He’s a super talent that can do it all.

“France, he means everything to us. He’s playing short and is one of our best pitchers. We’ll rely on him as much as anyone and he proved last year that he can deliver when we need him to deliver.”

South Hills’ other key returnees are second baseman Danny Sheehan, shortstop and pitcher Adrian DeHorta and sophomore pitcher Kevin McKelvey.

The only thing the Huskies are missing is a dominant pitcher, although they have pitchers who can get it done and are competitive.

3. Bonita (27-5)

The defending Hacienda League champions advanced to the Division 3 semifinals, where they lost to Beckman 8-2 after one of their best seasons in recent memory, including a nonleague win over Bishop Amat in front of thousands at Mt. SAC.

If only Garza could have pitched in every game.

He was absolutely flawless as a junior in finishing 13-0 with a 0.51 ERA and 75 strikeouts.

Garza faced every opponent’s No. 1 pitcher and allowed just six earned runs in 83 innings, arguably the best single season in Valley history.

He has been clocked near the mid-90s in recent tuneups, but even coach John Knott knows repeating what he did last year is almost impossible.

“The first thing I’m going to say to him is last year is done with,” Knott said. “It was a lot of great memories, lots of awards, but it’s over, it’s a fresh start now.

“I know that everyone will want to bring up that he went undefeated, that he’s won 14 straight and if he loses he’s not as good. That comes with the territory when you’re an elite player. But what’s great about him is he always stays focused and doesn’t put the type of pressure on himself that young kids would put on themselves in his position.

“At the end of the day, it’s a blessing to have a kid like Justin around. He’s a good leader, he’s working hard and excited about leading us. That’s all we can ask.”

Bonita has several other talented pitchers to choose from, including senior Alec Garcia, junior Parker Merritt and sophomore Joey Halabrin.

With infielder Thomas Castro and outfielder Nolan Henry returning, the Bearcats are in fine shape to defend their league crown and make another deep playoff run.

“I like our team,” Knott said. “We will know more about ourselves after the (preseason) tournaments and such. You never know with the new guys until after you see them in games, but from a talent perspective, we’re going to be fine. And when you have a guy like Garza at the center of it, sky’s the limit.”

4. Damien (17-13)

The Spartans finished third in the Sierra League last year, then went on a dream run in the Division 2 playoffs. They reached the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Mission Viejo 12-2.

The Spartans have a deep cast returning, including All-League first-team pitcher and shortstop Chad Lee.

Also back is left fielder J.J. Murillo, who batted .311, and catcher Kevin Hindes, who hit .347 with 10 RBIs.

The Spartans also return a pair of brothers who were two of last year’s best underclassmen.

Grant Hockin is only a sophomore, but the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder will pitch and play shortstop. His brother Chad is a junior infielder who hit big home runs in last year’s playoffs and finished hitting .298 with 14 RBIs and five homers.

“You know we always want to compete and be competitive,” Spartans coach Al Leyva said. “I’ve got a group this year that loves playing together and does a lot together that can go a long way.

“On paper I like what we’ve got, but baseball is a funny game. A lot of factors have to go your way to have the type of season you want. But I’ll take this group anytime. They’re fun to coach and I know they’re going to lay it all on the line.”

5. Covina (16-11)

No team returns as many starters as the Colts, who looked like they would run away with the Valle Vista League title before stumbling down the stretch and finishing second to San Dimas.

On paper, the Colts easily are the favorites in the Valle Vista League under new coach Scott Root, who returns after coaching the Colts a few years back.

Covina returns one of the area’s best catchers in 6-3 Nick Hynes, who hit .455 with 22 RBIs and 10 home runs. He is heading to the University of Arizona.

Senior outfielder Vinny Venegas hit .422 with 25 runs scored. Senior David Sepulveda batted .344, Cesar Murillo Jr., hit .347, outfielder Nick Simons hit .431 and shortstop Andrew Carillo hit .379 on a Colts squad that batted .340.

Junior Joe Wills is back after going 5-2 with a 0.99 ERA. Simons went 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA.

6. Los Altos (18-10)

The Conquerors return one of the area’s best all-around players in Munoz, the San Diego State-bound shortstop and pitcher who started as a freshman.

Munoz batted .400 with 25 RBIs, seven doubles and four home runs and also was big on the mound with a 5-3 record and 2.81 ERA.

In addition to Munoz, senior Giovani Morales will pitch and play shortstop. Morales batted .418 and sported a 3.82 ERA.

With catcher Steven Cameros, who hit .388 with 28 RBIs and 10 doubles, and brothers Jeremy and Jayson De La Pena, the Conquerors have a team that can compete with Bonita for the league title.

But it all starts with Munoz.

“He’s grown with us,” Los Altos coach Andrew Formano said. “Everyone keeps telling us he could be a high draft pick, but we don’t know how real it is. All I know is he’s been great with us and is as good as anyone around. We’re still toying with the best way to use him this year, but no matter what, we know he’s a big impact player.”

7. Glendora (17-7-1)

The Tartans’ move from the Sierra to the Baseline league didn’t do anything to slow the program.

Glendora won the Baseline title, but ironically, it had to face old Sierra League foe Damien in the first round of the Division 2 playoffs and was knocked out, 6-4.

The Tartans graduated a bulk of their starting lineup, including first baseman John Alexander, but coach Dan Henley is one of the best and the Tartans always reload.

From a returning standpoint, they do all right on the mound with senior Wyatt Wood, who was 2-1 with a 1.75 ERA, and junior Scott Burke, 5-2 with a 3.45 ERA.

Senior outfielder/infielder Donovan Holmes also returns after hitting .349 with 10 RBIs. Junior infielder Martin Galles is back as well.

8. Diamond Bar (15-12)

The Brahmas lose standout pitcher Kenny Mathews, but they return the other part of last year’s dynamic duo in senior Henry Omana, who statistically had a better year than the Cal State Fullerton-bound Mathews.

Omana batted .353 with 16 RBIs and was 6-0 with a 1.06 ERA.

The difference for Omana this year is he will be paired with his opponents’ top pitchers, a role Mathews played last year.

The Brahmas also return several other key players, including senior catcher Taylor Cavazos, senior pitcher/outfielder Zach Quiroz and talented juniors Tommy Delgadillo, Zeph Walters and Austin Szulczewski.

9. San Dimas (19-9-1)

The defending Valle Vista League champions lose Matt Munoz and Matt Lee, but coach Mike Regan always has a talented group. It includes senior Shawn Kennedy, who helped the Saints win a CIF-SS title as a freshman.

Kennedy hit .296 with 24 runs scored last season.

Daniel Milwee is back for his sophomore year after hitting .224 with 10 RBIs and junior Ricky Ramirez will play a bigger role after hitting .500 in just six games a year ago.

10. Charter Oak (10-14)

The Chargers competed well in the tough Sierra League, where they finished fourth behind Chino Hills, South Hills and Damien.

The Chargers return infielder Travis Santiago, who hit .321. Also back is outfielder/pitcher Nohlan Hernandez, who hit .444, and Nick Hernandez, who batted .238.

Senior Andrew De La Garza returns on the mound after going 3-0 with a 3.18 ERA.

fred.robledo@sgvn.com
626-962-8811, ext. 2161
sgvtribpreps@twitter

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  • SGV Baseball fan

    Rumor has it Amat is going to be without Alcantara because of knee surgery. Nieto will struggle with the young squad but they will be ready come D4 playoffs. Amat ranked #1 in preseason D4 followed by Covina #5. South Hills is #7 in D2. Bonita #2 in D3 and Sierra Vista #9 D5.

  • Spartans Fan

    #4 Damien at #3 Bonita, should be a great game, Friday!

  • Bulldog 4 Life

    @SGV Baseball fan..
    what are you talking about man?? Even if Amat was in D1 they will be ready to play..
    lol i was being sarcastic. thats just the typical ignorant amat fan response.
    don’t get me wrong, i’m an amat fan and an even bigger Rio fan but yes come playoffs they will be ready FOR DIVISION 4..

    you screwed up man.. your gonna get chewed out by all the amat fans for putting “they will be ready come D4 playoffs”.. they’re going to get all offensive about it

  • AMAT 73

    Bulldog 4 Life,
    You got it all wrong. We will be ready for any division during preleague games , you should know that, and defintely ready for the D-4 playoffs . HA HA HA HA . Just a little humor , good luck to your Bulldogs this season and what’s with someone already calling for your coach’s head 3 threads down from this one. What is your take on him and the outlook fopr this coming season ??? Kind of strange that the Bulldogs are very good in football but fall off for baseball .

  • No Northview???

    What??? No Northview in the rankings? What has happened to Murph and the mighty Vikes?

  • Baseball NUT

    Going 2 B a fun season!
    AMAT in DIV 4 is and always will be a joke. They belong in DIV 1. Lets see what happens when they play Mater Dei this week. They should be able to hang with the Monorachs and possibly beat them. However that kid from Harvard Westlake already blew them out, including striking out Rio 3 times. Then agian that kid is a once a generation pitcher. I think they will will be the champs in DIV 4, and ranked in the top 5 in CA when all is said and done.

    South Hills looks like another machine, YET will they falter again in the first round.
    Even though ranked # 6 I think the sleeper in all of the SGv will be Los Altos!

    Anyway its all about to begin, and no matter who we cheer for lets ALL cheer for our tiny little SGV, and ALL our teams!

  • baseball

    Where is the schedule for this year’s Glendora tournament. Who is playing and when does it start.

  • Chico Esquela

    They still play that (Glendora) Tournament?

  • Aaron

    Uh dude…it’s Nolan Henley

  • MLBDP

    Bonita should move up one spot. I am not sure how they match up against the AMAT, but I believe Bonita is a Championship team in the making. Garza will be a great MLB pitcher in a couple of years. His unique pitching style is very deceiving, that will add couple more MPH to his already high 94 MPH. He is very hard to hit, even for the MLB ballers……

  • GoAmat

    We love all our Amat haters. Welcome to another year of hating! GO AMAT 2011 CHAMPS! Who hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium? WHO? And the only high school kid to do it? WHO? RIO RUIZ!!! What school does her go to? That’s right! He goes to BISHOP AMAT! We love you RIO ZAMORA and ALCANTARA! So everyone what your about! Good luck in ur 2012 season!

  • C’ Mon Man

    Love the excitement, it permeates thru these blogs, however to address a few of these FUN comments or perspectives.
    1. First and most of all it is not Amat who chooses to stay D4. Give this Baseball staff a choice and D1 would have happened years ago!
    2. Alcantara will play thru the Miniscus injury…its not a ACL or MCL it’s a tolerable thing that ultimately is up to the individual. Alcantara’s a tough kid he’ll play.
    3.The young squad didn’t seem to struggle much against Servite…Pitching pitching and PITCHING!
    4. Fire coaches before the season? geez people, chill a little not a lot there…Football programs don’t always equate to winning baseball programs, maybe there’s not as many 2 sport athletes there or just simply BASEBALL PLAYERS!
    5.I was the one who said a few blogs ago that Garza is the TOP pitcher in the SGV, however i didn’t know that deception equated to Velo. deception = deception. He will continue to grow and develope into a top pitcher at the next level. (trying to look up the MLB BALLERS that have had trouble with him)never the less I love Garza.
    6.Rio went down 1 time against Lucas G. 97 no shame in that ask those MLB BALLERS!
    7.Bring on the 2012 season,keep up the Fun / and excitement.

  • just for the record

    I’m a fan of Rio but he is not the only high school player to hit a home run in dodger stadium. I saw Daryl Strawberry do it for Crenshaw.

  • MLBDP

    C’ Mon Man, what I mean is that Garza hide the ball so well before release, it looks even faster than 94 from the hitters point of view.

    Anyway, I bet a lot of kids never saw what 94 mph fastball looks like. I believe we will see a “no hitter” game from Garza this year. Look for the headline later on this blog.

  • bonita4lifffe

    Hopefull bonita can put together a good year, they lost a lot of starters, alot of players who are starting for college teams this year. Adam Mcreery had his first start for arizona state this past saturday, matt gelalich is playing center for pepperdine, mark lindsay has been starting and doing well for san francisco state, as well as kc huth, robert mier at junior colleges. Hopefully they can make up some of the fire power these 5 brought to the team. Go bearcats

  • sgv baller

    @bulldog 4 life. amat might be in division 4,but so is palm desert,torrance,oaks christian and laguna beach who are always great teams. last year amat beat mission viejo (division 2 champ) , esperanza (division 1 finalist } st. francis (ranked number 1 in the nation ),long beach jordan,chatsworth,palm desert and el capitan. they also faced top pitchers brooks kriske,chase dejong, troy conyers who are top pitchers in the nation. that is a very tough schedule.

  • Hey Bonita

    Wait a second I though Huth was playing D1 football and was a MLB draft pick. How did he end up at a JC.
    I am sure KH will show up under another handle and say he never said those things.
    Bahaahahahahahahahahaha

  • Gamer

    Fred:

    Time to get game of week up! Damien vs. Bonita Friday.’

  • lancerjoe

    Remember another thing….Rio has hit 95 on the gun, he lives at 92-94…it just kills Chris Beck that he has an absolute beast on the team and cant use him like a starting pitcher…Rio’s future is swinging the bat…but he sure can bring it, when they let him…Andy knows exactly what he is doing and what he is doing is whats best for Rio…and per the MLB

  • spartan gold

    Garza is overated!!!! Spartenvilla will expose Bonita and humiliate there batters, Fred, you have the ratings all wrong.
    Damien is # 1 and buy the end of the year youl be on the bandwagbegone my friend !
    Garzas a good little picher but we can HIT! Bonitas got no hitters this year, no power, no defence !
    Se ya Friday!

  • Lancelot

    Amat vs. Mater Dei on Thursday March 1. 2012. Should be a good game for the Lancers to measure their new young talent. It won’t get much bigger than this in terms of playing a (pre-season) Nationally Ranked team. Should be a whole bunch of scouts in attendance too. What a stage! All Lancer faithful should come on out and support our Lancers!

  • Big honcho Bonita

    Hey Spartan Gold, what were you saying about Bonita? Must be A hard game to swallow when you get SHUTOUT!!! So much for your “hitters”. Bonita is the King of La Verne now. This is our city. Move over!!