M Terry/ SFVS

Playing Hardball — Dons (l-r) Matt Gokey, Dakota Gray, Charlie Rocca and Nick Masumoto are hoping to get Verdugo Hills the City Section Division I title baseball game.

Verdugo Hills has been, as far as it’s concerned, trapped too long in a continual loop of a storyline it’s desperate to change. That of being the “small” school competing against bigger ones for a Los Angeles City Section Division I championship in baseball.

The story line is true in two respects. The Dons probably have the lowest student population of any Valley area school playing a Division I sport. And the Dons do compete; they just haven’t been able to bring back a trophy.

They may never have a better chance than they do today, May 31.   

The Dons (21-13), seeded sixth in the Division I playoff bracket, are one game away from playing for that elusive City Division I title. They will play Taft High (17-16), the second seed, in one of the two semifinal games at the University of Southern California baseball stadium. The winners play in the championship game at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, June 2.

No matter what happens on Thursday — or Saturday, should Verdugo Hills get there — Coach Angel Espindola, who’s now in his 10th season here, is proud in the knowledge that this group of players did mold themselves into the kind of team he envisioned when he first saw many of them coming out for varsity a couple of years ago.

“I’m really happy with them,” Espindola said. “I have six seniors this year.  [The season started off] tough because the chemistry wasn’t right, but I have really seen them grow. Not typical seniors leaders, but they have now taken control of the team. But…it was a battle in the beginning to make the pieces fit and work cohesively.”

The players say things have come together as they believed were possible.

“I knew our team was good enough,” said shortstop Charlie Rocca, 18, a senior. “Our team is solid. Our guys’ numbers this year are crazy. And the work we put in all season, grinding through to where we’re at, is definitely showing.”

Another senior, centerfielder Dakota Gray, agrees with Rocca.

“We had a lot of confidence going into this year with our group of seniors, and our group in general,” said Gray, 18. “It felt this year we would be in our prime as this group. We all want the same goal, and we want it for each other. Everyone will do what it takes.”

Rocca and Gray, along with pitcher Nick Masumoto and catcher Matt Gokey, are part of the solid core on which the 2018 Dons are built around. All are having excellent seasons at the plate, led by Rocca’s mind-bending .515 batting average plus 14 home runs and 43 RBIs. Gray is batting .382 and defensively running down everything hit to the outfield. 

Masumoto and Gokey, both juniors, play with a steadiness and maturity that doesn’t give away the fact they are both still 17. Gokey, who felt overwhelmed at times as the designated hitter last season, now goes to the plate with a revamped swing and a better idea of the kind of pitches he can attack — a key reason for his .411 average and 32 RBIs. Masumoto is pitching better than his 7-4 overall record would indicate. He has given up fewer hits (75) than innings pitched (81.1) and boasts a sub-1.00 earned run average in his 13 starts.

Gokey said Masumoto and the other top Dons pitcher, Nick Rodriguez (8-3 with a 2.15 ERA in 12 starts), have fully and successfully embraced the pitching philosophy preached by the coaches at Verdugo Hills.

“Our mentality is ‘let them hit the ball and let our defense work, and make those good plays,’” Gokey said

Still, reaching this level of team ability and team chemistry hasn’t always been easy or steady. 

In 2016 the Dons slumped toward the end of the year, losing seven of its final eight games to finish the season 12-19 overall and miss the playoffs. Last year Verdugo Hills was also below .500 overall (15-17), but tied Poly High for the East Valley League championship. Still, the Dons could not advance past the Division I play-in game, losing to Banning High of Wilmington.

And the doubts about Verdugo Hills could have crept in again at the beginning of the season as the Dons lost six of its first eight games, three of them by one run. “We lost mainly in the first half because we could not get the right mindset for tough games,” said Espindola, who was wondering himself when and if this group of Dons could pull things together.

A change occurred during the spring break. Instead of going out of state, Verdugo Hills stayed local and played in Dennis Gilbert’s Southern California Invitational tour-nament. They won it, defeating teams from Sherman Oaks CES,  Gardena High, South East High of South Gate (twice) and Bell High along the way.

“Up until the tournament, the identity of the team wasn’t easy to see,” Espindola said. “After that it came out, and more guys did their jobs and stayed in themselves. Everyone took control, everyone’s work ethic improved.”

Playing well in the tournament also “boosted us mentally,” Rocca said. “We knew we could compete when we won that tournament.”

By playoff time the turnaround was complete. Verdugo Hills again tied Poly for the East Valley League title. Poly was placed in the Open Division as the ninth seed, losing to Banning in the first round. Verdugo Hills has defeated Westchester High of Los Angeles and Sylmar High to reach the Division I semifinals.

The two teams met earlier this year in February. Taft won that meeting, 7-3, in 10 innings.

Espindola is confident the Toreadors will be facing a different group of Dons on Thursday.

Gray believes the team can produce a different outcome this time.

If…

“We need to bring it all and realize ‘this could be it,’” he said “And I think everyone does realize that.”

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