When your high school baseball team plays in the West Valley League you can be certain of several things.
Year in, year out, you’ll play in one of the toughest — maybe the toughest — league in the City Section. Oftentimes the league winner gets the top seed in the City’s Division I playoff bracket and, theoretically, the least path of resistance to the championship game.
You have to grind through 10 league games, playing five opponents twice. Don’t look for “breathers” in the schedule. Even fourth, fifth and sixth place teams can knock off first, second and third place teams going into each contest with their minds not on the business at hand.
Yes, the West Valley is a constant challenge. Players come and players go but the quality of play never seems to change. Expect tough pitching and good hitting mixed in with simmering and longhand rivalries.
Josh Lienhard has learned in seven years as head coach at El Camino Real (and three years as the junior varsity coach before that), the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Seems like they built the players a little bigger back between 2003-09,” said Lienhard, hustling the Conquistadors through practice before a spring rain started rolling through the Valley and Southern California. “That 2009 team I took over hit 49 home runs. But we also had those old (metal) bats and the ball just flew off them.
“What’s gotten really good — especially in the Valley, not just our league — is pitching. I don’t know if that’s due to the newer bats; a good hitter’s going to be able to swing any bat, and may stand out now even more.…but [pitching in] our league is very strong. And we’re all Division I, too, which makes it even tougher.”
Lienhard knows he has a consistent stream of talent flowing in from the West Hills Little league programs. “I think we still get like 70 percent of the kids coming out of the West Hills Little League” that go on to play for El Camino Real when they reach high school, he said. His 2015 team, which began the week 11-6 (going into the April 8 game against Taft) fits the profile. Several of the players have already known each other and played together for years.
And this group may have one thing the 2014 team — which finished 22-10 overall and was co-West Valley League champion with Chatsworth and was the top seed in Division I, but was ousted in the playoff quarterfinals by Palisades of Pacific — didn’t have: a deeper, more experienced pitching staff.
“You need a No. 1 and No. 2 starter. If you have two quality arms, it makes it really tough to beat in the playoffs for sure,” Lienhard said. “Last year we ran into a really good Palisades arm who wasn’t their ‘1’ throughout the year, but pitched like it that day. We couldn’t muster up a run and they beat us. Good pitching will beat good hitting. Obviously, you can’t make mistakes. You have to keep the ball down, hit your spots and keep guys off-balance. And you definitely need two guys, for sure.”
For ECR it starts with No. 1 starter Jeremy Polon, a junior. Polon was the team’s top starter last year, which is was a lot to ask of a 15-year-old sophomore even though Polon would earn all-league and All-City recognition. This year he is a little more physically mature, and has a better idea of what awaits to expect.
“It’s a good league, good pitching, competitive,” Polon said of the West Valley. “All teams have good pitchers and can hit. It’s a tough league, it’s competitive, it’s fun.”
If Polon, 16, is struggling on the mound that particular game, he said he has a coping mechanism.
“I try to make sure my mindset’s right. Keep myself calm and collected. That’s the best way if things aren’t going your way. Getting angry’s not gonna do anything,” he said.
Polon can also lean on his catcher Eric Yang for support. Yang, a junior who turned 17 on March 26, hadn’t worked behind the plate since his West Hills little league days. As an ECR freshman, he played in the infield with the junior varsity. But last year he switched back to the chest protector and shin guards, and did well enough to be selected all-league.
He understands his role is more than just catching balls and strikes.
“You try to make friends with the umpire, that can make it easier. But you also try to control the game, because you’re the only one that sees the field that way.,” Yang said. “And our pitchers are easy to work with. Our pitchers know what they’re doing.”
They’ll have to. As Yang points out, “there are no free games” in the West Valley League; just a survival test week after week, through 10 league games to get the best possible Division I playoff slot available. It doesn’t have to be the top slot; Birmingham won the 2014 title after finishing third in the league and seeded sixth.
Yang is eager to see how things shake out the next six weeks.
“I think we have what it takes to win. We have great pitching and defense, and our hitting is coming around. We’re starting to score runs for the pitchers, And they keep the run [total] low,” he said
“But our league is definitely the best in the City Section. So we have to come out every week hungry, starting with Taft.”