Overcoming adversity is touted as one of the lessons that sports can teach. So it’s understandable if the Poly baseball team feels as if it has already gone through a college course.
The Parrot’s 2015 season began brutally with seven straight losses. That’s right, seven straight losses. A start like that an vacuum all the joy of the game right out of the team’s psyche making it feel impossible to recover.
But Poly has recovered, evening it’s overall record at 12-12. And, after sweeping a two-game set from Verdugo Hills last week, it sits atop the East Valley League at 7-1.
By sticking together instead of turning on each other, the Parrots now control their destiny. Their remaining league games are two against Chavez — winless in league play — starting on Wednesday, April 22, and two the following week against Monroe, which was fifth in league at 3-5. No other East Valley team can catch them if they win out.
Coach Gabriel Cerna effusively praises assistants Chuck Schwal, Andy Martinez and Freddie Flores, Jr., as well as part-timers Louie Alvera and Rod Sotelo, for keeping the players’ spirits and focus intact. “To turn it around like this, a lot of credit goes to them; you don’t do this by yourself,” he said.
And there is the fortune of having gone through this kind of slump at the beginning of the season where there were still enough games to right the ship.
But it was butt-ugly in the beginning.
Berna recalled the team’s second game of the year against Marshall High of Los Angeles, on Feb. 21. “We’re one out away from beating them 6-1, and we can’t get that last out,” he said. “That put us in the dumps. I remember not even believing it, the loss. In succession, every outfielder from right to center to left made errors. I’ve been coaching baseball for 20 years and I had never seen anything like that. It hurt from a coaching standpoint, and it hurt even more when I saw three of my guys in the dugout with heads down, still in [disbelief] of what happened.”
The early schedule — including games against Cleveland, Roosevelt of Los Angeles, Burbank, Saugus and Village Christian — was as tough as Cerna could make it. “I wanted our guys battle-tested” by the time the playoffs arrived, he said. But it almost backfired. The losses kept coming — they were shut out four times in those first seven games — and Poly kept falling deeper into a widening hole. Players can only hear so many times from coaches that things would get better, that they were better than this. As senior right-handed Mike Galindo noted, “we had to see something good happen.”
The “good” thing wasn’t the 1-0 victory against Oak Park on March 7 that finally ended the losing streak. It came six days later against Granada Hills. The Parrots were trailing 5-1 in the bottom of the seventh, and rallied to win 6-5 when the Highlanders couldn’t get the final outs.
Galindo, 18, a senior, said the team collectively relaxed. “We had just kept working hard and bonding as a team. Sooner or later [we knew] we’d start hitting.”
The positive momentum continued to build during a spring break tournament in Las Vegas, where the team went 3-1. One of the victories came against highly regarded Damonte Ranch High of Reno, NV, with Parrot sophomore Danny Piemienta on the mound.
“In [the Las Vegas tournament] it all clicked together,” Cerna said. “Seeing Danny winning, and us battling and winning every inning, that got us believing. We had lost to Arleta the week before, our first league game, and that was a big slap in the face. That also woke us up. But the Vegas trip changed everything.”
The Arleta loss (on March 18) is the only one Poly has suffered in the East Valley. It should be noted the Parrot’s game pitcher was Alex Leon. The other seven league games have been won by either Galindo or Isaac Guiterrez.
Galindo (4-1, 0.31), a power pitcher, was an unexpected gift. He attended Arleta last year, but his family moved into Poly’s attendance boundary and Galindo decided to transfer. Cerna already knew how good he could be. “Arleta won five league games last year and he won all five,” the coach said.
Gutierrez (4-0, 1.01), 18, a senior who depends more on off-speed stuff, has also been pivotal in Poly’s resurgence. The right-hander had left the team before the season started — “he said he lost his love for the game,” Cerna said — but had a change of heart and asked to come back. Cerna told Gutierrez he would not play in a game for a month, meaning he would not be used until at least March 20.
So Gutierrez could only watch during the horrific start. And there were some things he didn’t like along with the losses.
“We weren’t bonding; there was no chemistry [early],” he said. “Everyone had their own thing going on. But after the Granada Hills game, things began to turn around.”
And despite the rough beginning and the early lack of team unity he sensed, Gutierrez said there wasn’t a need for a “player’s meeting” to air grievances or a complete loss of faith. “We knew it had to turnaround sometime,” he said.
Poly hasn’t locked up the East Valley yet. And even if they win the league the Parrots probably wouldn’t get that high a seed in a loaded Division I playoffs that could include teams like defending champion Birmingham, Chatsworth, El Camino Real, San Fernando, Narbonne, San Pedro, Marshall, Roosevelt and Kennedy.
A total of 20 teams will get in. Poly just wants to get in and worry later about the opponent.
Rest assured, they won’t worry long or hard. After what the Parrots have already gone through in 2015, they’ll take on the Dodgers.
“They no longer go on the field thinking ‘how are we gonna lose this game.’ Now we walk out and feel confident we’ll find a way to win,” Cerna said.