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SoCal Baseball Notes 3/21/17

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Another week of baseball is in the books and as we begin the new week, it’s time to start focusing on league matchups for most teams around the CIF-SS. While some leagues began play last week, most will begin in earnest this week and boy are we in for a treat with some of the top leagues in the region. 
There’s a twist this season due to the realignment of divisions that was rolled out by CIF that will cause a lot of confusion down the stretch and most certainly will result in heartbreak for some teams. But I’ll dive into that later let’s first get into some more important stuff. 
MILESTONES:
In the last week we saw three coaches achieve some pretty incredible milestones for their schools and with this group of players.
At Corona del Mar, Coach John Emme won his 300th game as his Sea Kings beat Irvine 10-0. CdM has one of its best teams in recent memory and this season could end up being a special one for Emme in more ways than one. 
At Cypress, Coach John Weber won his 250th game in a 5-2 victory over San Clemente. Weber has coached some very good players over the years and has a few on his roster this year. While the Centurions have scuffled out of the gate, you can never count them out in the Empire League.
At Aliso Niguel, Coach Craig Hansen won his 200th game over the aforementioned Cypress Centurions. Like Weber, Hansen has had his fair share of great ballplayers and the future is very bright for the Wolverines as they have a very good freshman and sophomore class.
LEAGUE PLAY:
League play presents a whole different set of challenges for teams and players. In a lot of cases players are going against kids they’ve faced or played with growing up. There’s the tradition of rivalries and, in some cases, there’s flat out distaste for one another.
In other words, it’s the best time of the baseball season.
The dugouts get a little louder; there’s a little more tension at the games; the parents chirp a little louder; and coaches who are the closest of friends off the field won’t speak to each other for a few days. It’s simply the best.
Around SoCal this year there are several leagues worth keeping an eye. Let’s take a look at a few of what I think should prove to be great theater this year
Mission League: Annually one of the top leagues in the state, if not the country. This year there’s the added bonus of having the potential number one overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft playing in the league meaning there’s going to be 30+ scouts at each of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame’s games. The Knights responded by sweeping Loyola last week. So much for jitters. Harvard Westlake won a series against a stout Alemany team and their ace Daniel Ritcheson who many consider a pro prospect in his own right. The Wolverines have a solid senior class but their underclassmen ensure they’re built to last. Chaminade is quietly off to a 7-1 start despite losing a ton of talent off last years roster. Head coach Frank Mutz does a great job annually with his team and he’ll need that this week as his Eagles face Harvard Westlake for a huge three game series.  Crespi will be improved, as should be St. Francis, but they’ll be hard pressed to crack the top four in league an earn a playoff spot.
South Coast League: Coming into the season everyone thought it would be El Toro, and their four Division I pitchers, then everyone else. Well, the Chargers have scuffled out the gate while Mission Viejo is playing great baseball having reached the finals of the Lerner Division of the Newport Elks Tournament. Tanner Bibee is a bona-fide ace and has the attention of pro scouts. While many believe he’ll end up at Cal State Fullerton, scouts I’ve spoken to tell me he’s climbing boards fast with each outing. El Toro has time to right the ship and I fully expect they will. They’ll get a huge shot again Mater Dei this week before turning back to league on Thursday. Capo Valley, San Clemente, and Aliso Niguel all have the roster that can propel them to the top of the league and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. All are well coached, and all have been there before in recent years. This is going to be a great league race.
BIG VIII: Followers of Inland Empire baseball know that this is traditionally the best league in the area and 2017 may be the best year in a long time. There’s depth. There’s talent. And there’s a whole of intrigue. King, led by first-year head coach Steve Madril sits atop the standings at 2-0 after the first week of league play.  The Wolves used a late inning comeback to defeat a very good Roosevelt team, handing the Mustangs their first loss of the season.  Roosevelt’s schedule features a who’s-who of teams ranked in their respective divisions. Credit to head coach Mark Wade for scheduling tough competition in a year he had to know he had the horses to compete. Norco’s biggest win-to-date is a 2-0 victory over a very good Ayala team. But the Cougars are no slouches and will have a chance to make some noise against Centennial and Roosevelt this week. Santiago, winners of five of their last six, will have a chance to climb the league standings this week as they square off with Roosevelt and Corona. It’s a shame that one or two very good teams from this league will not make the playoffs. More on that later.
West Valley League: This is arguably the best league in the City Section annually and 2017 is no exception. Chatsworth, who is ranked by everyone across the country, sits atop the league in the early going. Head coach Tom Meusborn has a very good team led by senior RHP/1B Tommy Palomera who, if he continues his early season pace, will have a chance to have his name selected in the upcoming draft. The Chancellors are deep, and they’re a veteran team with a ton of playoff experience. Cleveland, Birmingham, Taft, El Camino Real, and Granada Hills are all looking up right now, but if this league has taught us anything the last couple of years, it’s that anything can happen, and it usually does. El Camino Real will head to the San Diego Lions Tournament as the defending champions. It was there last year that head coach Josh Lienhard’s team really kicked into gear en route to winning their second City Section title in a row.
Pacific Coast League: Call this the Rodney Dangerfield league because it gets no respect despite being one of the best, most competitive leagues in Orange County annually. While they’re only just beginning league, the favorite has to be Beckman on the heels of their championship victory in the Lerner Division of the Newport Elks Tournament. Matt McLain (UCLA) is beginning to command the attention of scouts who have an eye on next year while scouting this year. They also have a legitimate ace in Zach Espinoza. The roster is veteran-laden and head coach Kevin LaValle has been there before.  If Corona del Mar can get consistent pitching they too will be a threat for the league title. Preston Hartsell (USC) is a superstar waiting to happen. The kid is a freak athlete who generates big time bat speed and power. As demonstrated last year, you can never count out Woodbridge so long as Tim Murray is the head coach. Spencer Weston (SDSU) provides the Warriors a legitimate 3-hole hitter who can drive the ball out of the ballpark. University to me is the wild card in the league and we’ll know a whole lot more about them after this week when they face Beckman and CdM.
'18 MIF Matt McLain of @BPatsBaseball & a @UCLABaseball commit goes Ya-Ya! @SoCalSidelines @ocvarsity @SteveFryer @SoCalSteve9 @ShotgunSprD1 pic.twitter.com/lSwryujU6u
— Les Lukach (@LesLukach) March 18, 2017
Southwestern League: Murrieta Mesa surprised everyone last year as they marched all the way to the CIF SS Division I title when nobody gave them a fighting chance. The Rams lost their coach Bryn Wade before the start of the season when he unexpectedly resigned. The Rams are off to a rocky start so far this season and it once again appears that Vista Murrieta is the cream of the crop in the league. Head coach Matt Mosiello has a darn good club that features senior leadership and has good underclassman. Temecula Valley appears to be back to its winning form after dipping a bit last year and they, along with Chaparral and Great Oak, will battle for the top of the league as usual. It’s going to be interesting to see which teams earn a postseason birth because one very solid club is going to be on the outside looking in.
Palomares League: When all is said and done, this may be the best league in SoCal from a competitive standpoint. While nationally ranked South Hills are the favorites, nothing will come easy as evidenced by their loss to a very good Bonita team last week. The Huskies have their fair share of talent on the roster and that may ultimately win out over most teams, but Bonita proved last week that you still have to play the games. Bonita came into this season with big expectations and have scuffled out the gate. Maybe the win last week was the spark that gets them going. Ayala is deep and talented while Glendora appears to be back to their winning ways after a rough 2016 season. There are four very good teams at the top of this league and the ones that earn a postseason birth will be battle tested and primed for a deep run in the playoffs.
Trinity League: Widely considered the top league in the state – some say the country – the Trinity League this year features close to 50 Division I baseball commits amongst its six teams. 50! The big question this year is who is the favorite? While in years past it was pretty obvious to identify the top team, 2017 is different. Is it Bosco with their incredible pitching depth? Is Mater Dei with their overall talent? Is it Servite with their mix of veterans and young talent at most positions? Is Santa Margarita with their consistency? How about JSerra with best player in Orange County, a key transfer and a lot of young talent? Or is it OLu with their 11 DI commits? What we do know is that OLu is off to a 2-0 start against Santa Margarita while others are waiting to start league (OLu started league early because they’re playing in the NHSI next week). These games are always fun to watch because of the talent level, the resources poured into these programs, and because of the expectations.
OTHER LEAGUE RACES TO WATCH
Sunset League: This looks like Huntington Beach then everyone else, but this league is never what is appears to be. 

Freeway League: Fullerton appears to be the frontrunner, but don’t count out Troy. Love what Arlie Kearney is doing at Sunny Hills.
Sea View League: Hans Crouse is the best player on what appears to be the best team in the league.

Moore League: The league may be down a little bit from a talent standpoint, but this is always a fun league to follow. Read the league preview from my friends at the PT Gazette. 

Crestview League: Foothill is off to a great start and El Dorado is right behind them. The league title should come down to their three game series.
LOOKING AHEAD (AGAIN):
In my opinion the class of 2019 is the next best class in the SoCal area as it pertains to MLB Draft prospects. That class is as loaded at the top as this current class, but in my opinion has far greater depth – especially on the mound where there are several top pitchers in this class.
When Vanderbilt comes in to SoCal to pull kids out of here, that ought to be an indication of how special the talent is, and the Commodores did that four times already!
Let’s look at some of the top prospects in this class. Please remember this is in no way a complete list – that would require its own post which I may do later, this is just my opinion of who the top players are in this class.
This is not a ranking of these players; these are just notes. Players are listed in no particular order.
Right handed pitcher Wesley Scott (Vanderbilt) of Woodcrest Christian in Riverside is arguably the top player in the state for the 2019 class. Working in the low 90’s with his fastball, Scott has easy arm actions that projects big time. Scott has enjoyed a lot of success during the summer circuit and I’d expect him to be on the Underclass Area Code Games team – at worst – this summer.
Outfielder/Left handed pitcher Spencer Jones (Vanderbilt) of La Costa Canyon is the next big thing for the Mavericks who produced number one overall pick Mickey Moniak in 2016. Jones flashed big time power at the plate, but it’s on the mound where he’s most intriguing. Standing at 6’7” Jones’s ball gets on hitters in a hurry and is already in the mid-80’s.
Outfield Jasiah Dixon (USC) of Orange Lutheran is arguably the most athletic player in his class as evidenced by his 6.3 60-yard time. A former football player who has decided to focus on baseball, Dixon is a freakishly athletic player who is beginning to show flashes of power as well. A big time outfield arm to go with speed, Dixon too will likely have a big summer and position himself for more acclaim heading into his junior year.
Catcher Gabe Briones (USC) of Riverside King is, in my opinion, the best catcher in this class. Briones is a three-time Team USA member - 12U, 15U twice. I saw Briones as an eighth grader playing in a league against college redshirts and he more than handled himself calling his own pitches and handling himself at the plate. Briones shows power potential with a short, compact swing that stays in the zone. If that power comes, look out.
Left handed pitcher Joe Naranjo (Cal State Fullerton) of Ayala is one of my favorite players in this class because all he does is compete. I had the opportunity to coach him in a USA Baseball event for a weekend as an eighth grader and was completely impressed with his demeanor and approach to the game. A member of the 15U National Team last summer, Naranjo has shown the ability to hit at a high level to go along with his pitching skills. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the next two-way standout for the Titans.
Left handed pitcher Cooper Benson (Arizona State) of San Luis Obispo is a household name in baseball circles because of his natural ability to throw gas! Working in the high-80’s to low-90’s, Benson uses a quirky delivery that has a lot of moving parts which adds to the intrigue. He’s not afraid to work inside and challenge hitters giving him that old school feel.
Middle infielder Johnny Olmstead (USC) of Newport Harbor is a name that continues to pop up when speaking to scouts because of his ability to hit and his developing power (see video below). A slick fielder who can run well, Olmstead is having a break out season so far for the Sailors and is one to continue to watch in this class.
Left handed pitcher Tony Jacob (Vanderbilt) of Saugus is as intriguing as they come in this class. Working in the mid-to-upper 80’s, Jacob is seeing his stock rise due in part to his ability to throw multiple pitches and the fact that he’s a winner. Jacob will be a four-year starter when he graduates and has already played on one National Team (15U) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does that again.
Right handed pitcher Cole Dale (UCLA) of Notre Dame is one of those pitchers that after you watch him throw you ask yourself, “how’d he do that?” Very few kids his age have as deep an understanding of how to pitch – working both sides of the plate, mixing up speeds, changing locations, etc. – as Dale which is what separates him at this stage in the game.
If Briones is the #1 catcher in this class, then Jared Thomas (Miami) of Cantwell Sacred Heart is 1A. Thomas burst onto the scene last year and carried that momentum into the summer where he was lights out on the travel ball circuit. A good defensive catcher, it’s his left-handed swing that separates Thomas from other hitters in this class. Shows present power that projects continued improvement.
OTHER TOP PLAYERS:
Michael Carpentier Jr. (TCU) – Citrus Valley
CJ Rodriguez (Vanderbilt) – Mater Dei
Jake Skipworth – Riverside King
Justin Campbell – Simi Valley  (Note: I have not seen Campbell pitch in person so I didn’t list him above)
Josh Hahn – Huntington Beach
Evan Fitterer (UCLA) – Aliso Niguel
Jayden Cruz (Cal State Fullerton) – Gahr
Eddie Pelc (USC) – Sage Hill
Michael Curialle (UCLA) – JSerra
Connor Buchanan (USC) – La Canada
Mac Bingham (SC) – Torrey Pines
Cody Freeman (Baylor) – Etiwanda
Nick Pena (Oregon) – Riverside King
Runners on 2& 3
John Olmstead delivers3run HOME RUN!!! pic.twitter.com/OHEObzLcwC
— NHHS Tars Baseball (@NHHSTars) March 14, 2017

THE BEST PLAYER YOU’VE LIKELY NEVER HEARD OF:
When a professional baseball scout says that a kid is the most athletic player he’s seen in his class, it catches your attention. When he says that about a player in the 2019 class you better pay close attention.
Such is the case with sophomore shortstop JaJa Bellinger of Carson. Bellinger will be a four-year starter at both quarterback and shortstop for the Colts when all is said and done. While his future is bright in both sports, it is baseball – in the opinion of at least a few scouts – where his ceiling is highest.
Bellinger has the rare combination of tools that intrigue scouts. He can run, hit for average while flashing power, plays defense at an advanced level, and can throw.  His arm may be his best tool in a box full of them.
Congrats, and good luck this season, JaJa!


Not many know him, but they will. Say hello to '19 SS JaJa Bellinger of Carson. @RockstarBasebal @ErikkAldridge @socalscouts @SoCalSidelines pic.twitter.com/zrQtmqsa2Q
— Les Lukach (@LesLukach) March 18, 2017


Kid hits, runs, & throws. Boy does he throw. @RockstarBasebal @ErikkAldridge @socalscouts @SoCalSidelines pic.twitter.com/bPJd7QVXd5
— Les Lukach (@LesLukach) March 18, 2017

I JUST REALLY LIKE THIS GUY
RJ Lan of La Mirada is signed to play baseball at TCU and the funny thing is he could've played Division I football had he chosen to. According to his football coach, Lan was the only player in SoCal with Division I offers in both football and baseball. Based on the video below, I think the kid made the right decision. 

TCU Commit RJ Lan hitting a 3 run HR today vs. Narbonne; Final LM 9-NHS 1 @LesLukach @SteveRRamirez @latsondheimer @TCU_Baseball @TCUSchloss pic.twitter.com/Cwe9npCCS4
— bgdaddylan (@bgdaddylan) March 19, 2017

COMMENTARY

Finally, I want to discuss the new competitive balance playoff format for a bit. Let me get it out of the way, if my understanding of the new format as explained to me by several coaches is correct, I think the CIF SS screwed this up big time.

With teams from the same league being in different divisions, this is not going to end well at all.

Take for example the BIG VIII League. The league is the best it’s been in years but all the teams are spread out in different divisions. Corona, Norco, Santiago are in Division I, King is in Division 2, and Roosevelt and Centennial are in Division 3.

At last checked, Roosevelt was #1 in D3 and King was #5 in D2. The rest of the teams are pretty chalk full of talent too.
Could you imagine if Roosevelt is #1 in D3 at the end of the year but finishes fourth in league and doesn’t make the playoffs?  Or what if King or Norco finish in 4th or 5th place in the league and miss the postseason?  
The same holds true in Trinity League if Bosco lives up to expectations. The Braves are absolutely loaded on the mound and have some very good hitters as well. They could theoretically finish in the top 5 of Division 2, but finish fourth in league and not make the postseason. Or, what if the Braves finish in the top 3 in league and bump a fellow league team from the Division I playoffs?
Compounding the issue, it appears the top divisions will not have any wild card entries either.
Look, I’m for equity and fairness. But this seems too much like the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that has led youth sports to where it is.
I don’t like. I think it’s ridiculous. And if I’m CIF SS commissioner Rob Wigod, I better start crafting a response because there are going to be some angry coaches calling and emailing him when the brackets are released.
As always, thanks for reading. 
Until next time, see you at the ballfield...


Email me at socalhsbaseball@gmail.com
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