Varsity veterans Vincent Mahoney and Caharlie Rocco have Verdugo Hills battlaing for the East Valley League title   

With an estimated student population base of 1,400, Verdugo Hills High is one of the smallest schools playing Division I baseball in the Los Angeles City Section.

And it doesn’t make it easier trying to attract or retain talent with top City baseball programs at San Fernando High and Kennedy High, and Southern Section standouts Crescenta Valley High of La Crescenta and La Canada High being drivable and viable options.

The Dons have yet to win a D-I championship — particularly with the West Valley programs of Birmingham, Chatsworth and El Camino Real being obstacles. And, with an overall record of 13-15, there’s nothing that immediately suggests the Dons will win that title this year.

But there is something going on at Verdugo Hills that bears watching.

For one thing, the Dons have rebounded from a wretched start that saw them lose eight in a row after winning the 2017 season opener. They are currently atop the East Valley League with a 9-1 record although their chief competitor, Poly has four league games left while Verdugo Hills has just two. Both teams have only one league loss.

The Dons don’t have another game until Saturday, April 29, when they will play El Camino Real in a tournament game. The break comes at a good time, Coach Angel Espindola said; some players can recover from injuries and the team as a whole can catch its collective breath and concentrate on finishing the season strong and getting into the Division I playoffs, which Verdugo Hills missed last year for the first time in Espindola’s nine years as head coach.

It was looking early on that the Dons would have no postseason hopes this season, either. But the team turned things around the way Espindola believed it could.

“We have been improving consistently throughout the season overall,” Espindola said. “From Day One to now, I’d say we’re on an uphill plane. But this year was kind of a test.”

“The pitching I had coming back had either struggled last year or was inexperienced. So I didn’t have a returning varsity guy ready to ‘take over.’ That was the biggest question in my mind: whether our pitching would hold up and compete on a regular basis. They have actually exceeded my expectations. We’ve been in games. It’s often been we didn’t hit as well as we should or didn’t get the timely hit. So I’m happy with how our pitching turned out, especially with what we had coming back.”

What the Dons don’t have, Espindola said, is the kind of marquee “signature” victory in Division I that puts them firmly in the playoff mix. They’ve had opportunities, with games agains Los Angeles schools Garfield, Hamilton and Marshall, and West Valley teams Granada Hills and Taft. But Garfield was the only team the Dons defeated.

“We’ve played a lot of tough games,” Espindola said. “We lost to Taft by one run in extra innings, lost to Marshall by one run in extras. We just haven’t gotten the clutch hit when we’re in a tight game. We had a decent schedule, a lot of tight games in those losses. We haven’t taken that big jump.”

What Espindola doesn’t bring up is the youth of the team, which has only three seniors who start. But the lineup does feature a junior, shortstop Charlie Rocca, who’s having a big season, batting .512, with 43 hits including eight home runs, 31 runs scored, and 33 runs batted in.

“He’s just been on fire,” Espindola said.

Not making the playoffs last season didn’t sit well with Rocca, and said the team is “definitely putting in a lot of work this season to make it to our goal.” He also made revamping his batting stroke part of his motivation.

“(His stance is) more closed in, and I’m seeing the ball better,” Rocca said.

Vincent Mahoney, a senior, has provided support behind Rocca in the lineup, driving in 13 runs. But his greater value has been on the mound, where Mahoney — the Verdugo Hills’ 2017 class valedictorian who plans to study economics at UCLA in the fall — has developed into a reliable No. 1 starter, with a 2.54 earned run average and 48 strikeouts in 50 innings.

While not overpowering, he has three pitches he can throw for strikes and uses different arm angles to attack opposing batters.

“It’s a role I’ve embraced,” Mahoney said. “I’ve always loved to pitch. I like the control; you’re isolated, away from everybody. It’s mental game for me. As much as I’d love to have Charlie’s physical gifts, I’m not quite there. So I’ve always had to use what I’ve got.

“Last year I got away from my game, trying to throw too hard. This year I’ve eased back, even though I am throwing a little harder because I’ve gotten bigger. And I’ll pitch to anybody. I trust my stuff. The best hitters will get a three out of 10 times. The other seven I’ll get them. If I spread the hits out during the game, I’m gonna be okay.”

Mahoney understands that Verdugo Hills could be very good next season as the core group continues to mature. But this is his last chance for postseason play in high school. And he’s encouraged by the push the Dons are making.

“Not making the playoffs last year…I’m a competitor and I hate to lose,” Mahoney said. “That was part of it last year — I’ve always had a fiery passion for the game and last year that wasn’t there as much. That was prevalent throughout the whole team and I didn’t do much to help. This year, being a little more mature, I’ve tried to stop that before it started.

“Last year we were a bit jaded, maybe felt we were a little too cool to work hard, too cool to scrap. Not so much any more. Everybody, from the 1st to the 16th guy, is okay in their role and willing to do it.”