No. 4 Harvard-Westlake Wolverines (Studio City, Calif.)
State Association/League: California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section Division 1/Mission Baseball League
Head Coach: Matt LaCour (8th season as head coach)
2013 Results: 28-4 overall record; Mission Baseball League co-Champion; CIF Southern Section Division 1 Champion; Perfect Game National Champion
Key Losses: C/3B Arden Pabst (Georgia Tech); 1B Joseph Corrigan (Southern Cal); RHP Conor Cuse (Stanford); 2B/RHP Alex Horowitz
Top Returning Players: Sr. UTL/RHP Jack Flaherty (North Carolina); Sr. INF Brian Ginsberg (Brown); Sr. INF Tyler Urbach (Fordham); Sr. C Matt Karo (Columbia); Jr. INF Ezra Steinberg; Sr. 1B Jacob Pardo
Notable Matchups: March 1, 4, 6, 8, 11 vs. Easton Tournament TBD; March 24-27 vs. Big League Dugout National Classic at Scottsdale, Ariz.; April 14 vs. Loyola; April 17 at Loyola
AN ENCORE PERFORMANCE REPLICATING THAT OF 2013 might be a bit too much to ask of head coach Matt LaCour and his Harvard-Westlake High School baseball team in 2014. But based on what happened last season, forgive LaCour for thinking there is nothing that his group of athletes cannot ultimately accomplish.
The Wolverines, who today debut at No. 4 in Perfect Game’s Preseason National High School Rankings, are coming off an unrivaled campaign in 2013. They were co-champions of the Mission Baseball League, rattled off seven straight postseason wins to grab their first CIF Division 1 Southern Section Championship and finish with a 28-4 overall record, and were ultimately declared the Perfect Game National Champion (they were also the Baseball America/BCA National Champion).
LaCour was named the National High School Baseball Coaches Association (NHSBCA) Coach of the Year after already being named the Los Angeles Times Coach of the Year. Now the job before him is to get his returning players in the right frame of mind to try to make another run to national prominence.
“There’s no doubt there was a summer hangover with things in our program,” LaCour told PG during a telephone conversation last week. “This summer it was hard to get back on the field and get going again, and we needed a little bit of rest after everything we went through last year. But when we met with the players early in the fall, as a coaching staff we made a commitment to not talk to them about last year and compare this team to last year’s team in any category other than work ethic.
“The players have done a real good job of forming their own identity as a team throughout the fall and the winter and at the same time maintaining our standard of work ethic that we feel is something that cannot be lost.”
To many people’s way of thinking, last season’s success arrived a year late. The 2012 Harvard-Westlake team featured left-hander Max Fried and righty Lucas Giolito, both of whom wound up being first-round picks in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft and agreed to multi-million dollar signing bonuses. Giolito missed most of the season with an injury and that Wolverines team ultimately lost early in the 2012 postseason.
History didn’t repeat itself last spring. Led by the play of a strong senior class – including first baseman Joseph Corrigan (Southern Cal), catcher Arden Pabst (Georgia Tech) and right-hander Conor Cuse (Stanford) – and an equally talented junior class, the Wolverines clawed their way to a CIF Section and PG National championship.
Those juniors are now seniors and three of them stand out: top right-hander and utility man Jack Flaherty, and infielders Brian Ginsberg and Tyler Urbach. Flaherty and Ginsberg played in all 32 games last year as juniors and have been regulars on the varsity since their sophomore seasons. Junior infielder Ezra Steinberg also saw considerable playing time as a sophomore in 2013.
“The experience of this team has to be factored into the strengths that we have,” LaCour said. “We did lose some major factors but we also return some major factors from last year’s team. I feel good about the experience we have. Our kids have played in big games and they know what it takes in order to succeed at that level of baseball.”
Flaherty, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound infielder and right-handed pitcher who played for the West squad at the 2013 Perfect Game All-American Classic – LaCour was the West team’s head coach at the prestigious event – was named the L.A. Times Player of the Year after a stellar junior season.
He hit .360 (31-for-86) with seven extra-base hits, 13 RBI and 13 stolen bases, and was 13-0 with 112 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 89 innings pitched. He twirled a complete game shutout in Harvard-Westlake’s 1-0 win over Huntington Beach Marina High School in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship game.
“The overall athleticism of this kid is off the charts,” LaCour said of Flaherty. “That’s the first thing that’s going to stand out to anybody that comes and watches him play – with his size, the way he moves on the field is both graceful and explosive. That’s a pretty special set of skills to have.”
Flaherty, PG’s No. 18-ranked national prospect in the class of 2014, has committed to Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse North Carolina. Additionally, Perfect Game ranks him the No. 37 overall prospect in June’s MLB amateur draft, a ranking that could translate into a late first round or early second round selection. Both the Tar Heels and the big league team that drafts him will then have to decide how to use him.
“There are 30 major league clubs and I think every single team is going to have their own view on where Jack Flaherty’s future is,” LaCour said. “We’ve already started hearing it: ‘Is he a pitcher? Is he a position player?’ That will all play itself out and teams will make their own individual analysis on that. I know for us and I know if he ends up at the collegiate level he’s both – and he’s both at a really high level.”
Ginsberg, a Brown University recruit, hit .337 (28-for-83) with eight extra-base hits and 18 RBI last season; Steinberg hit .376 and his 41 hits – six for extra bases – led the team. Urbach, who hit .273 and joined Flaherty at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis last summer, has committed to Fordham.
“I like where we’re at from an offensive approach standpoint,” LaCour said. “We understand a little bit about who we are individually at the plate and we’re doing a real good job of developing our approach around what we can do on the field and being the best possible individual players we can be at the plate for us.”
LaCour said he is going to ask a lot from some of his program’s top sophomores this season, and there are five of them on the varsity roster. He usually likes to let his 10th-graders ease their way into prominent roles but said this year he’s “excited” to see many of the younger guys establish themselves early. All-and-all, he likes where the program is at as it pursues a second straight championship season.
“I’m feeling really good about school, I’m feeling really good about our baseball program and the kids that we have in it and the coaching staff that we have,” LaCour said. “There’s nothing I’d like to change about this place right now. It’s just a matter of getting those kids in tune and going out there and putting it all together and developing that ‘team’ – which every year changes – and it’s going to be a fun ride to kind of see the identity of this team come out.”