JSerra Catholic High School last played meaningful California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) baseball games on March 11, 2020, when it swept a home Trinity League double-header from Santa Margarita Catholic HS to improve to 11-1 on the season. Then that was it; the Lions haven’t played an official CIF Southern Section game since that day.
In fact, due to the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, the JSerra coaches weren’t able to even see their players again until the 2020-21 school year began in August and still weren’t allowed to do any work on the field. The kids were in school but couldn’t do much of anything baseball-wise except conditioning work; they couldn’t even touch a baseball.
As time passed, the Lions started making trips over to Arizona and in September they rented the Padres’ MLB spring training facility in Peoria so they could conduct a mini-camp that also involved local teams. As the weeks passed, JSerra returned to Arizona three more times while also making trips east to Utah and Texas. The Lions were doing everything they could just to get back out on the field until things began to normalize back home.
“For the last two or three months we’ve been able to practice with obvious guidelines in place: social distancing, wearing masks on and off the field,” JSerra Head Coach Brett Kay told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation earlier this week. “Regular practice from a baseball perspective (returned) but we cannot play any games in the state of California...So it’s been a long, winding road.”
Most of the people on the front lines are optimistic that road is beginning to straighten somewhat as California high school students return to their respective classrooms and baseball teams across the state are conducting practices. The CIF pushed the start of the season back one month, meaning opening day is now March 19 for all member schools.
And if that happens, there will be a genuine feeling of pure joy for everyone involved, but maybe particularly so for the six schools that are card-carrying members of the Trinity League, one of the top conferences in the CIF South Section.
JSerra and Santa Margarita are joined by perennial powers Orange Lutheran, Mater Dei, St. John Bosco and Servite in the Trinity League. JSerra will open the season at No. 2 in the PG High School 2021 Preseason Top 50 National Rankings (No. 1 PGHS Pacific Region) with Orange Lutheran coming in at No. 13 and Santa Margarita at No. 20.
“It’s going to be a juggernaut,” Orange Lutheran Head Coach Eric Borba told PG this week. “It’s five weeks going against five other opponents and it’s just an absolute dogfight...It’s fun; I think it’s the SEC of high school baseball.
“You’ve got to stay healthy and things have got to go your way,” he was quick to add. “Everything is a one or two-run ballgame for the most part and it’s really a college preparatory environment for our kids; that’s what makes it fun.”
It should be a great deal of fun if, indeed, the season is allowed to be played. The cancellation of the 2020 season shortly after it began was tough on everyone, of course, but hit CIF South Section championship contenders like JSerra and Orange Lutheran particularly hard.
“We were the No. 1 team in the state last year at the time we finished but I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of those returners or our freshman or our sophomores,” Kay said. “That was a difficult pill to swallow, losing that team while understanding, of course, what was going out there in the world.”
With top seniors (class of 2021) in shortstop Cody Schrier (No. 29-ranked, UCLA commit), left-hander Gage Jump (No. 38, UCLA), right-hander Eric Silva (No. 122, UCLA), outfielder Gabe D'Arcy (No. 179, Arkansas), righty Luke Jewett (No. 191, UCLA) and other talented upperclassmen back in tow, Kay has every reason to be optimistic about the season; junior right-hander David Horn (No. 46, UCLA) will also be leaned on. And yes, that is five UCLA commits on a single roster.
“We’ve had some special teams before...but this has got a chance to be the most special team that I’ve been a part of and that’s all things being considered,” Kay said. “The culture is really good, our leadership is phenomenal, the talent is phenomenal. There’s some growing pains for our younger group that is a part of our varsity but this is a really talented team.”
The Orange Lutheran Lancers were 8-0 when the 2020 season was shut down and Borba was forced to bid a fond farewell to a talented group of seniors much earlier than he anticipated.
It was also a team poised to capture an unprecedented fourth straight championship at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., before it was cancelled. The event is back on the calendar for the last week of March this year and the Lancers intend to be in attendance if circumstances allow.
“It’s been really tough on the class of ’21; those are the guys that we really try to put a lot of focus on,” Borba said when asked about this team moving forward. “They lost most of their season last year as juniors and this season’s in jeopardy and they haven’t been able to get in front of colleges. So a lot of them still don’t know where they’re going to go to school.”
The student body at Orange Lutheran is working under a hybrid model where students experience in-person learning for two days a week and virtual learning the other days. The baseball team has been able to get out on the field while operating under strict guidelines including sanitizing baseballs and not allowing baserunners.
“There’s definitely been some roadblocks but at the same time at least we’re getting out there and doing some things,” Borba said.
In the fall, the Lancers took a couple of trips out of state to play some games as a club team, which is permitted under CIF rules. There have been times during the school year when they had to shut down completely but they’ve still managed to get out on the field quite a bit.
“We have to stay in pods where we don’t have more than 15 (players) in a group at one time, but we can have more than that at practice; we just have to keep them split up,” Borba said. “We’ve been able to get quite a bit done.”
But they’re back chomping at the bit this season with senior shortstops Matthew Polk (No. 125, Vanderbilt) and Justin Decriscio (t-500, San Diego), and outfielder Chris Canada (HF, San Diego St.) leading the way.
They’re supported by a host of special juniors including middle-infielder Mikey Romero (No. 44, Arizona), catcher/first baseman Karson Bowen (No. 51, TCU), first baseman/left-hander Gabe Miranda (No. 405, TCU) and right-hander/third baseman Louis Rodriguez (No. 433, TCU).
“It’s going to be a little bit of a different look than what we’ve been used to having the last few years,” Borba said, citing specifically the graduation of right-handers Max Rajcic and Christian Rodriguez, who are now at UCLA and Cal State Fullerton, respectively,
“We’re going to be looking for some innings on the mound but this team offensively has a chance to be as good as any we’ve ever had,” he added. “I think the depth of the lineup is just remarkable for a high school team, and that junior class is about as strong of a class as I’ve had.”
Borba then expounded on that thought:
“We’re excited. It’s fun to watch these guys take batting practice, it’s fun to watch these guys come out to the field every day; they’re advanced in their defensive skillset,” he said. “On the mound, we’re going to be able to give a lot of different looks to teams and kind of play the hot hand a little bit. It’s going to be a different team than what we’ve seen and put out there but an exciting team to watch.”
Those are two very talented rosters, to be sure, but these players (and coaches) are going to be challenged this season like they’ve never been before. Coaches like Kay and Borba also have to be very cognizant of their young players’ mental health after dealing with months of being quarantined and following strict guidelines regarding their personal interactions with people outside of their immediate families.
As Kay pointed out it’s been tough on everyone, including his young children. It’s something none of them have ever dealt with before and, as Kay said, “All we can do is be a coach, a father, a brother, a mentor, a shoulder to lean on; (offer) a helping hand. This is all something new to us and it’s like a new world. It’s hard to be creative but you have to be.”
He told PG he and his staff are creating what he called a “chaos drill” which applies to everything the players do when chaos enters their life. They need to learn the most effective way to react when adversity strikes no matter what the realm.
“Going through a pandemic, what does it look like, what does our world like, what am I not getting?” Kay said. “I think the chaos drill is really important. It’s so important in how they attack certain things and certain aspects.”
Borba noted that every coach goes into a new season knowing there will be peaks and valleys and the key is making sure the peaks consistently tower over the valleys. The highs and lows will be accentuated in 2021 by what appears to be inevitable stops and starts to the schedule; postponements and cancellations are a real possibility on any given day.
Mental toughness has always been the key to any success an athlete enjoys and it will be all the more important this season. Having a short memory is important, too, so that when the hiccups do occur it’s important the players just keep looking forward.
“I think our guys are doing a great job of understanding the situation that we’re in,” Borba said. “We’re a Christian school and we talk about God being in control. Our guys are pretty sound in their faith and knowing that something is going to come out of this.
“I think that we can always turn to that aspect of our program knowing that God has a plan for each and every one of them and we’re going to do what we can while we can and just trust that something good is going to come out in the end.”
Trust is of the essence these days, and as these teams set out on what they hope will be as smooth of a voyage as possible while navigating the turbulent waters that represent life in the Trinity League in 2021, hope also springs eternal. Baseball is good at bringing trust and hope to the forefront.
JSerra’s Kay pointed out that at a program such as the one he oversees, any season that ends without a CIF section championship is often considered sub-par. That line of thinking has always been misdirected to the point of being unfair but it was there, nonetheless.
Well, throw it to the wayside in 2021. This season will be more about the process, more about making sure the young players are comfortable in their own shoes while they help give each other as enjoyable of an experience as they can possibly have.
“As long as these kids are mentally healthy and happy and at a good place physically, then I’m in a good place,” Kay said. “I know we’re going to coach their tails off and I know they’re going to want to be coached hard; they’ve got a chance to do something special...
“During this time it’s allowed us to really miss baseball and what’s important to us, and that’s our health, that’s our family,” he concluded. “Baseball is obviously a big part of what we do but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”
And, fingers crossed, play will begin next month in the ultra-competitive Trinity League and the players, the coaches and their families will regain some sense of normalcy. That would be the perfect end-all, be-all.