It’s going to be an interesting week for the Taft Toreadors baseball team.
They have no games to play. But, as a program, they have some decisions to make.
Is this group of 18 seniors ready to turn a final corner? Is the gestation period that began when many were freshmen and now are seniors finally over? Is Taft truly ready to challenge in the West Valley, the toughest baseball league in the City Section, a league that has produced seven Division I champions over the past nine years including reigning titlist Birmingham?
The 2018 Toreadors believe they can and believing is half the battle. They have gotten off to a decent start — 6-4 overall, going into an off-week this week before heading into a spring break tournament in San Diego. And even their current three-game slide is not discouraging them, even though they realize there are some things to address in practice.
“We need to really focus on our offense,” noted catcher Ethan Steinmehl, 17, a senior. “We need to focus on what we’re missing, because we haven’t been scoring a lot. We need to fill the little holes and gaps we’ve been having, find a way to spark ourselves. Because we’ve had games where everyone was hitting. We need to find a way to be more consistent.”
“Our team has been struggling the past few games; and when you’re in a slump, you have to relax and be yourself,” adds second baseman Josh Thomas, 17, a senior. “Or you need to identify the problem and do the opposite. If you’re taking too many pitches, you need to be aggressive instead. It’s the little things combined with the mental nature of how you go about your business.
“This week is gonna be key for us to get back on track and win more ballgames.”
A bigger obstacle — making the program feel relevant and competitive again — has already been overcome.
Michael NcNeely is now in his third season as the varsity coach. (Before that he spent a year coaching the junior varsity). In his first year the Toreadors were 11-21 overall, went winless in league play and lost in the first round of the Division I playoffs. Last year they improved to 18-15 overall, went 2-8 in league and again were eliminated in the first round of Division I.
But now, McNeely said, he and his fellow coaches are seeing the kind of growth and development they believed was possible when they took over the program.
“Where we are located [in the West Valley] there are so many high schools in a small area. We get a lot of kids from the Encino Little League, and we can get what’s left after Notre Dame, Crespi, El Camino Real and Birmingham,” McNeely said.
“But we needed to change the mindset. I didn’t get the sense they thought they might be good enough. My job has been to get them to believe they are good enough. It was a gradual process and having some success against good teams, they now believe they could play on the same field. They’ve changed their mindset.”
The players agree.
“As a team we are pretty scrappy,” said shortstop and pitcher Lee Brandzel, 18, a senior. “We’ve got some raw tools. We’ve got guys who grind out their at-bats, guys who deal with failure. We’re not the most physically gifted, but we have grown.”
“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” Thomas said. “Ever since [McNeely] came to the program, he’s turned around our reputation on the field and in school. He’s taught us how to be better people off the field, which has translated to our performance on the field.”
Which is why the Toreadors (who had a doubleheader with Dorsey High of Los Angeles on Saturday, March 17, canceled due to an unplayable field due to recent rains) are not griping about their present dry spell that has seen them score just two runs in their most recent three defeats.
“(When McNeely started) his goal was to pick the people he trusted and stick with them, and get the bond going that we have right now. And that has happened,” Steinmehl said.
That bond has been reinforced by winning a couple of league games last year, including a victory over Birmingham, and then winning a summer league tournament that included victories against Poly, El Camino Real, Notre Dame and Chatsworth. The Toreadors — who resume game action on March 26, opening against Mater Dei Catholic High of Chula Vista in the spring tournament — know what’s possible, especially this season when the City Section has added an Open Division (for the top eight designated teams) and will have a separate Division I bracket. That means plenty of playoff slots are available. And plenty of opportunities for a big impact on a school where football and basketball have been the programs commanding the spotlight.
“At Taft baseball, we have a chip on our shoulder,” McNeely said. “Now [the players] believe they are good. So, I think they want to be among the best of the best. What happened in the past, we don’t talk about it. But we want to be among the best.”
And not just in baseball.
“Coach McNeely has not only developed us as baseball players, he’s developed us as young men,” Brandzel said. “Going on in life, I’ll remember all the conversations I’ve had with him. Like if I had to think about some situation, well, what would Coach say? That’s for everyone whether your relationship with him has been one year or four years — it doesn’t matter. He’s developing young men.”