M. Terry / SFVS

On A Mission — Kennedy High seniors (l-r) Angel Chidez, Andrew Olivas, Branden Duarte and Christopher Alvarez want to get the Cougars into the upcoming City Section Open Division playoffs. 

There are, supposedly, many ways to skin a cat. But the opponents facing the Kennedy High baseball team this season are finding the Golden Cougars have a pretty tough hide.

Kennedy is 20-6 overall and 7-0 in the Valley Mission League, a game ahead of San Fernando who they face next week. The rivalry — “one of the very best in the Valley,” Kennedy Coach Marcus Alvarado said — is always competitive and often intense, and has often decided the league champion the past few years.

But one thing this senior-heavy group of Cougars has learned and trusted over time: do not look ahead and do not disrespect your opponent. Even though the team overwhelmed an obviously undermanned Panorama team on Monday (the teams play again today, April 26) by game time Kennedy will have convinced itself it is playing the Dodgers.

Alvarado’s father, Manny, was the head coach here for more than 20 years and won five City championships before a disputed suspension — first by then Principal Suzanne Blake and then later by the Los Angeles Unified School District over an alleged hazing incident — ultimately led to him to his current position as an assistant at Sierra Canyon. The son took over the program in the 2015-16 academic year. This is his best team yet, at least by record. And it is a team he says understands its strengths (pitching and defense) as well as its limitations (home run production).

It’s one reason that eight of the team’s victories are by two runs or less.

“They’re believing in the system,” Alvarado said of his team. “They understand that working on the fundamentals is key to winning the close games. ”The players admit it took a little while to accept the more “small ball” approach — bunting, moving runners along with productive outs, timely hitting matched by stingy pitching — that Alvarado was promoting.“ At first, yeah, it was hard because he was really nitpicking,” said smooth-fielding shortstop Branden Duarte, 17, a senior. “But as time passed we bought into his system and it has improved us a lot.

“This is my third year on varsity. I’ve been with Alvarado since he’s been here. I think he’s a big role model for us. Since he has come in, our defense is a lot better and our pitching has improved. He really harps on the little things and he wants us to be perfectionists in practice, so when it gets to game time we just go out and play. We know we’ll be prepared.”

Pitcher Christopher Alvarez, who is 6-1 with one save and sports a 2.42 earned run average, agreed that this year’s team is stronger all around playing this brand of baseball.

“Last year was kinda sketchy,” said Alvarez, 18, a senior. “Our pitching staff wasn’t there. This year we’ve improved a lot on our pitching staff, and I think that’s a big part of our team. Our hitting was kinda iffy last year, too, but it’s gotten better.”

The team also appears to not be bogged down by egos or clannishness.

“It’s not a team it’s a brotherhood,” insists Angel Chidez, 18, a senior pitcher and third baseman who is batting .468 and driven in 24 runs. “I’ve been knowing them many years now — through T-ball, actually. That’s the best thing about Kennedy baseball. We’ve come together as a family, all wanting the same goal.”

The proof has been in the product on the field. Kennedy started out the season 4-0, and enjoyed a 10-game winning streak before a 2-1 loss to Cleveland High on April 21. That defeat was exacerbated by the loss of senior left-handed pitcher Phillip Alfaro, who was struck in the head by a hard, one-hop grounder from the first batter he faced, and sustained a fractured orbital bone near his right eye. Alvarado is hopeful that Alfaro may heal in time for the playoffs.

But that game also showed the pitching depth of Kennedy. Sophomore Vincent Esparza came in to relieve and allowed just one hit over the next six innings, before tiring in the seventh when Cleveland finally broke through to score the tying and winning runs with one out.

The Cougars will have another key nonleague meeting on Saturday, April 28, against Birmingham High before finishing the regular season against San Fernando and Van Nuys. Then they wait to hear their playoff berth, either in City’s Division I or new Open Division.

Outfielder Andrew Olivas, who is batting .397 and driven in 23 runs, wouldn’t be surprised if opponents underestimate Kennedy in the postseason. And that’s okay with him.

“No one sees us as a big-hitting team.They’re not afraid of us,” Olivas said. “So we come out and play the game, play ‘small ball’ and do what we’ve gotta do to win.

“Everyone must stay on the same page. We’re winning; keep doing what we’re doing. Throw strikes, hit the ball….That’s how we make our name.”

Duarte nods his head.

“We want to be in the Open Division because those are the best teams in the City, and we feel like we are one of the best teams in the City. The Open Division would be the goal. And it is realistic. We feel like we can play in Dodger Stadium. We have the talent, we have the pitching; the offense is there and the defense is there. We’re solid.”

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