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Matchup of Respect


Orange, Ca. - At its core, baseball is a game of match ups, like the matchup between the power team versus the team that relies on small ball to win. Or the late inning move to the lefty against the righty. Then there are times when the matchups aren’t obvious at all, and those usually have the best stories.

Friday, March 9th, at Hark Park in Orange, a matchup of a different kind will take place. The Stockton St. Mary’s Rams and the Orange Lutheran Lancers will play a double header for the fourth consecutive year, in the alternating home team series between two storied high school programs. On the surface, the matchup appears to be two schools with the resources to travel in state to play very good competition. But that would be presumptuous, and truly a disservice to the brewing rivalry. This series goes deeper than just the last four years; these head coaches have been competing against each other far longer than that.

After being an off campus assistant coach at St. Mary’s for 16 years, Peter Pijl (pronounced: Pile) was promoted to head coach in 2001 and went right to work on challenging his players.

“The first thing I did was try to upgrade our schedule, so I scheduled De La Salle, and the third year, Eric got the job," said Pijl.  "So we played when he was at De La Salle and we have been friends ever since."

Eric Borba arrived at De La Salle after a CIF Championship at Analy High School and a stint at Sonoma State, his alma mater. After a brief conversation, the two coaches agreed to continue the series meeting for the first time in 2004.

The next year, Borba invited Pijl and his team to play in the Oakland Coliseum Classic, a high school baseball showcase that raised $40,000 and purchased uniforms for inner city Oakland baseball teams. From then on, Pijl knew he had a friend in Borba.

“I have the utmost respect for Eric, he didn't have to invite us, but he did," said Pijl. "He’s such a giver and expects nothing in return. Add to that he’s a heck of a baseball coach, and what’s not to like?"

Said Borba, “Pete is such a great guy and I have such respect for him and his teams. He’s a guy whose record commands respect, but he’s much more than a baseball coach. He’s a molder of men."

It takes space on the schedule, along with some creative player management, to schedule out-of-region competition in the midst of a tournament, and the beginning of league play a week later.

“Scheduling the games with St. Mary’s is so important to us,” said Borba. “Sometimes it can be tough with the travel; (but) playing games against programs and coaches that you respect and admire is something we want to do."

Neither coach has ever shied away from competing against the best teams, routinely scheduling their teams to challenging preseason games and the best tournaments.

For Borba and Pijl the thought is the same: Play the best teams we can throughout the regular season and be playing the best going into the postseason.

“It prepares us for the playoffs” said Pijl, who has guided St. Mary’s to back-to-back CIF San Joaquin section titles, on playing tough competition. “Yesterday we saw a number one. Today we are facing a guy 6’7” who throws in the upper 80’s. We know Eric is going to have guys prepared to play us. Besides, I would rather lose to a good team than beat a team that doesn’t make us better".

Borba agrees. “This allows us to play very good competition in the preseason rather than setting up our schedule to win a bunch of games. It gives our players exposure to what we’re going to see beginning next week with league, and it prepares us for the playoffs”.

Pijl’s intense and focused approach comes from his days of playing varsity ball in the late 1960’s at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa, Ca., followed by a couple years at Orange Coast College, before moving on to Cal State Hayward where he played for two years.

Some twenty years later Borba played his prep ball at Damien High School before moving on to Chaffey College, and ultimately settling in at Sonoma State University where he played for legendary coach John Goelz.

Both coaches attribute much of what they know about baseball and the game of life to their college coaches.

“Once a week I call him” said Pijl, who last played a collegiate game over 30 years ago. “The man taught me so much".

“Coach Goelz at Sonoma State is one of the finest guys I know.” said Borba who stays in touch with his collegiate coach often bouncing ideas off him. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for him. He helped get me into coaching and continues to teach me a lot”.

It is this knowledge they gleaned from their mentors early in their careers that compels Borba and Pijl to pass on to their respective players. Each coach has been wildly successful in producing talented players who have gone on to play collegiately and beyond. Pijl currently has 19 players in the college ranks and six playing pro baseball. Borba has 16 collegians and 13 players playing professionally.

The development of players is something that drives Pijl. “I tell my kids that I don’t want to be their last coach” said Pijl. “If they’re willing to put in the work we can teach them skills to keep playing the game."

For Borba the delivery is different but the message is the same. “We want kids to keep playing the game. Personally, it is a very gratifying feeling when one of my players continues to play beyond high school. It’s equally, if not more gratifying, to see my player become a husband and a father and do it the right way”.

Each team comes into the weekend loaded with talent and is expecting special things this season. St. Mary’s is on a quest for a CIF Championship three-peat. “We decided as soon as we won last year that we’re all-in on trying to get the third one,” said Pijl. The Rams have six players who have signed to play collegiate baseball - including one at Division II, and one at the NAIA level - along with one committed junior.

The Orange Lutheran coaches will tell you that there is something about this team that is different than last years. There is more discipline at the plate; there is more focus on fundementals; there is more drive to break through in the playoffs; there’s a sense of unfinished business after last seasons tough loss to Edison in the quarterfinals. “The leadership on this team is unbelievable. You have three D1 guys and a fourth who is unsigned," said Borba. "Those guys have really been outstanding in keeping the team loose and accountable. This senior class is very focused and committed to winning”.

Many fans attending Friday nights’ double-header will be focused on the matchups they see on the field, and rightfully so. The Lancers are expected to trot out a pitcher who threw a complete game shutout in his last outing, which happened to be his first varsity start. The Rams will trot out a D1 player who was the only player to hit a home run from both sides of the plate at last years prestigious Area Code Games, played at cavernous Blair Field in Long Beach, Ca.

However, the best matchup will be the least obvious one. It will take place between two men, separated by two decades, but united by an unrelenting passion for baseball. Two men who met for the first time on a baseball diamond and today stand as close friends. 

-Les Lukach
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