It’s a bright, sunny day at San Fernando High, perfect for a catfight.
Tigers and Cougars can be seen prowling all over the San Fernando High baseball field on this Tuesday, April 25, both in search of the Valley Mission League baseball championship. No surprise there; San Fernando and Kennedy have either won outright or shared the league title the last six years. And they began this game with identical 8-0 league records.
The past two years the Valley Mission has been Kennedy’s property. Going into Tuesday’s contest, the Cougars had won 30 straight league games, with the last loss being to San Fernando on March 25, 2014.
On Tuesday, San Fernando pulled out a 2-1 victory in eight innings, thanks in part to a throwing error by Kennedy second baseman Jose Olives, who was trying to complete double play. It gives the Tigers (15-6, 9-0) a momentary edge in the league race. Both teams play each other again at Kennedy today, April 28.
Don’t expect the Cougars (11-8, 8-1) to be hanging heads after the loss. This is a minor setback considering they began the 2016 season 1-6, and were looking like a non-factor before reversing their fortunes.
That doesn’t mean the slow start was easy for the new head coach, who has a famous name in these parts.
Marcus Alvarado came to Kennedy from Arleta where he was its head coach. He also had assistant jobs at El Camino Real and Simi Valley. But he has deep roots at Kennedy. Not only did Alvarado play baseball for the Cougars in the 1990s, his father Manny was the longtime head coach, winning five City titles in his 24 years.
“I was the bat boy on the 1989 championship team,” Alvarado said. “I was always sitting in that dugout wishing I would be a Cougar one day. Fortunately, I played here (1996-98).
“I learned to love the traditions, of having pride in your facilities. We don’t have a top-notch facility but we take pride in what we have … This is a dream job.”
It’s a job the son wishes the father still had. But in November 2011 Manny was placed on administrative leave by then principal Suzanne Blake, and later suspended for three weeks without pay because of an alleged hazing incident involving two students supposedly exchanging “body shots” outside of the campus weight room. He was charged with failing to properly supervise.
The suspension was eventually overturned by an arbitrator in 2013. But the longtime relationship was severed.
Until Alvarado decided to take the job after last year’s head coach Andy Rodriguez resigned.
It is still difficult for Alvarado to talk about what happened to his father, who’s now retired. But the chance to come back and coach at the high school where he played — and where the Alvarado name still means a lot to the Cougar community — was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Some of the Kennedy seniors who were freshman during the turmoil over Manny are glad to have an Alvarado back in the dugout.
“My brother was an alumni here, and I saw the way (Manny) coached,” said Moises Carillo, 18, a first baseman and designated hitter. “I feel like Marcus is exactly like him. He brings that seriousness to the field, that attitude that he expects a lot from us and to work hard. He teaches us to not just be great on the field but also off the field — how to be a man and things like that.”
Alvarado, whose boyish features completely hide the fact that he’s 36, married and has a daughter in high school, said that was the most important baseball lesson he learned from his dad.
When he got the head coach position at Arleta, “I was always very passionate about winning, winning, winning,” Alvarado said. “But my dad always said it’s not about winning, it’s about teaching the kids that life is more that that. And your job as a head coach is to give them those [values], teach them to be a good parent one day.
“I never took that in as an assistant coach or JV coach, but when I became the Arleta coach I finally understood that I was also a father figure.”
That helped him maintain patience through those first seven games when he and his assistant coaches were “trying to figure out we had.” Alvarado understood that he had scheduled early tough games, and believed the team would come around.
Jerry Aguilar, the Cougars’ leading batter with 31 hits and 33 RBIs, said the players did eventually figure things out by the time league play started. After that 1-6 start, Kennedy would win 10 of it’s next 11 games, including a nonleague victory over defending City champion El Camino Real on April 23.
“It was more like a light came on,” said Aguilar, 18. “We kinda settled into our places, figuring out what we’re supposed to do, and then do our jobs.”
Tuesday’s loss may have ended their league winning streak. But the Cougars are not out of the Valley Mission race unless they lose again to San Fernando.
Alvarado wants more than league titles, though. And he’s not alone. Kennedy’s last City championship was in 2006, and his famous last name won’t placate the Cougar fan base forever.
“It’s been difficult to live up to the expectations,” Alvarado said. “People have asked ‘when are you gonna bring back the City title?’ It takes time … having my dad’s name does put a lot of pressure on — especially at Kennedy.
“But the people who know me know that I’m a perfectionist; and I’m my own worst critic. So if parents or other people want to complain, I’m fine with that. Believe me, when I look in the mirror I want total perfection. I want it more than they do.”
He has faith in this team, which came through that early difficult stretch. They have evolved into difficult opponent, no matter where they land in the upcoming playoff bracket.
“We believe we can play with anybody,” Alvarado said. “Talent goes so far. I believe work ethic and heart [beats] that. I believe that showed against El Camino. I know we didn’t face their top pitchers, but El Camino has a stacked pitching staff over there. So the confidence we have that we can play with a top team in the state is high.
“Our goal, like everybody’s, is to win a City title. That’s why I came here. Not to lose in the first round or just be happy to be in the playoffs. Our goal is that [last] four-game winning streak.”