It’s possible that the Cesar Chávez Learning Academy, which affirmatively puts academic pursuit ahead of all else, could be into its first golden era of athletic achievement.
The San Fernando campus that houses four separate high schools, and has been operational since 2007, is making some serious strides as their athletic programs are maturing.
Most recently, the softball team has won back-to-back City Section Division II championships. The boys’ basketball team won its first City Division IV championship on March 1. The football team had its best season in 2016, going 8-2 in the regular season and reaching the City Division III semifinals before losing to eventual section champion Franklin High of Los Angeles.
That’s not to suggest the Eagles baseball team, which have only been playing a varsity baseball schedule since 2012, has been putrid. They have twice reached a City final, the Division II championship games of 2013 and 2015. They went to the Division II semifinals last year.
But they haven’t broken through.
And the baseball team is eager to “ring” up a title for itself.
“It’s not just ‘we want a turn,’ we feel it’s our turn,” said pitcher/catcher Willie Chaides, one of two seniors in the Eagles’ starting lineup.
That is part of the Eagles’ conundrum. This is primarily a young team wearing big boy baseball pants in 2017 after being moved up to Division I. Young teams rarely make big impacts against long-time D-I programs like El Camino Real, Chatsworth, San Fernando, Birmingham, Kennedy and Sylmar — and that’s just the Valley.
The other half of the puzzle: the Eagles are trying to make this flight plan under new management.
Daniel Serrano has taken over. It’s his first high school baseball coaching job. And he has to convince a group of players who don’t really know him that he knows what he’s doing through methods that may not always be conventional.
“What I see as most challenging (about his team) is they’ve had success, but they don’t know how to measure that success and understand what the baseball part of it requires them to do,” said Serrano, who played at Verdugo Hills High and College of the Canyons, and was working as a private coach with individual students before getting the job here in November.
“Baseball has a lot of demands. You need mental training as well as the physical conditioning, and it requires a lot of time,” he said.
Because Serrano took the job late, the Eagles didn’t have a fall league schedule under him. So, leading into 2017, he has spent his available practice hours drilling the team on fundamentals while also trying to deepen and sharpen their mental acumen about the game and its situations.
Chavez bolted out of the gate with six straight wins then dropped it’s next three, including a 13-3 decision to Taft on Monday, March 13. But now the Eagles get a needed break, with no scheduled games before their East Valley League opener against Monroe High on March 22. Plenty of time to rediscover what made them start out so well and reinforce those elements of their game.
“We have succeeded at all the physical stuff of the game. We have outhit teams. But when the mental side of the game is put to the test…well, I’m here to build up that part of the program because that is what they have been lacking,” Serrano said.
This is where Serrano needs the impetus and leadership of Chaides and Gunner Orozco, who are not only cousins but arguably the Eagles’ best players. Both can pitch. Both can hit. Both have talent — they combined for a no-hitter against Fairfax of Los Angeles on Feb. 16 in the 20-0 season opening victory that was shortened to five innings.
Serrano’s approach has felt more “old-school” to Chaides. “He wants to play ‘small ball,’ using the bunt and moving people over. We were more of a ‘swing-away’ team last year.” But the most important change that Serrano is bringing is one that Chaides really likes. “He wants us to work more as a team and not be individuals.”
Orozco — who, with 20 hits and 14 RBIs already, is off to a monster start — says the message is starting to be received by the underclassmen who will be the team’s foundation the next couple of years. “We are becoming more of a family now.”
League play, of course, will be a fuller, more defining test in part because the Eagles don’t have a tournament during the week-long Easter break as another measuring stick. And if they do qualify for the Division I playoffs, they’ll face the best City teams out there.
“To keep winning we have to stop making mistakes. We can’t [beat] the good teams if we don’t,” Orozco said.
Cousin Willie believes if the Eagles are willing to continue working hard and improving, they can beat those good teams in April and May.
Because, after all, it’s Chavez’s turn.