M. Terry / SFVS

‘V' is for Vipers — Valley Academy of Arts & Sciences enjoys its second City title in three years, this time in Division II. 

Bring the curtain down on the 2018-19 Los Angeles City Section athletic schedule. The remaining two baseball championships in Division II and Division III have been claimed — much to the delight of San Fernando Valley area fans.

Vaughn International Studies Academy repeated as the Division III winner by defeating Maywood CES of Los Angeles, 6-5. Valley Academy of Arts & Sciences (VAAS) knocked off South Gate High, 5-2, in extra innings for the Division II title.

Both games took place on Saturday, June 1, at USC. Both Vaughn and VAAS were third seeds in the playoff bracket, and each beat the top seed.

Neither Vaughn nor Valley Academy would consider their victory an upset. The White Tigers, as previously noted, won D-III last year. And the Vipers (who didn’t begin their baseball program until the 2016-17 academic year) won the D-III title in 2017, and reached that division’s semifinals last year before moving into D-II this season.

What both teams have in common is the bond the players have built through a dedication to practice, a realistic understanding  of what works best for them, and a confidence that they’ll find a way to come through in crucial moments.

“More than half of the kids who come into our school have never played organized baseball before,” Vaughn Coach Michael Ewart said. “They may have thrown a ball around with their dad in the park, but have never been on a team. But I got very fortunate with my group of seniors this year. Two of them started for me as freshmen… [As sophomores] we played in a lot of tournaments and saw some of those D-1 and D-II teams that were above their level. But they could see how those teams played, how they communicate. I’m impressed with how far [this team] has come this year.”

Coach James McFadden, who has built the Valley Academy program from the ground up, could also appreciate his team’s growth and development.

“Every season is different in regards to different struggles. But this year we had nothing but heart and chemistry,” McFadden said. “We won it in 2017, [becoming] the first first-year program in Division III to win. Last year we made it to the semifinals, and they got overconfident. This year was a grind. [City Section] moved us to Division II; nobody gave us a chance but — like the first year — the kids believed in each other. That’s what it was. They knew nothing could go wrong.”

The constructed layers of trust and belief were on display in both contests.

Vaughn (18-10) was facing an opponent having a dream season. Maywood came into the final with a 21-1 record, the only loss to South East High of South Gate back on April 13. But on Saturday the White Tigers had played the Wolfpack even, 3-3, through six innings.

The seventh inning was dramatic for both sides. Vaughn roughed up Maywood reliever Matthew Castro (who was also betrayed by a couple of defensive lapses) for three runs. That seemed to be a large enough lead since the teams had only been able to score single runs against each other. But the Wolfpack quickly scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh, had two runners on base with one out, and had seemingly snatched back the momentum.

Vaughn pitcher Adrian Banuelos — who had relieved starter Ismael De Haro in the fifth — got Maywood batter Allen Chaly to flair a soft liner to right. Outfielder Brandon Castro, a sophomore, sprinted toward the infield, dived, and caught the ball inches from the ground. Castro then heard his teammate Vicente Vargas’ shouts to throw him the ball. He bounced up and threw it to the White Tigers shortstop, who stepped on second base for a game-ending double play.

“Midway through the running I didn’t think I had a chance [to catch it],” said Castro, who was mobbed by teammates as he trotted in from right field. “But as I started getting closer, something in my head just said ‘dive, dive.’”

“What a play,” Ewart said. “I asked him after the game ‘when did you decide to dive?’ He said, “Coach, I’ve been watching a lot of highlights of MLB players and even high school playoffs, and thinking to myself I needed to put myself out there, I need to make that extra effort. If there was an opportunity, I’m gonna go all out for it.’

“That was his moment to do that. He really did learn he has ‘that’ in him, the capability to make that kind of play. We learned that about him, too. It was a very special moment for him and for us.”

De Haro, a senior, was ecstatic about celebrating another title.

“We knew we had to hold it down in the (bottom of the) seventh,” he said. “Unfortunately they got a couple of hits, and nearly tied it up. But we still kept it in our heads that we could win, and to keep trying hard. We came in here knowing we trusted each other. It helped us get through the whole game.”

For Ewart, watching his players learn lessons about selflessness and teamwork is just as rewarding as seeing them hit a curveball.

“Part of my job is to help them to become better people, and prepare for whatever life has in store for them,” he said. “The big thing to me is understanding commitment — I’ve held them to that. I’ve said ‘you made a commitment to your team, and that means something.’”

Like Vaughn, VAAS (22-9) was involved in a tight game against South Gate. But the Vipers were motivated by the first meeting they had against the Rams, a 4-3 loss on February 19. Being a program that prides itself on playing defense, Valley Academy uncharacteristically made four errors that day, which handed South Gate three unearned runs.

“We had a lot of energy coming into [Saturday’s] game,” said first baseman Jose Mendoza, a senior. “I felt we were on our ‘A’ game and [would make] everything perfect.”

Although the score was deadlocked after the regulation seven innings, one player was having an impact on the proceedings.

Rasheed Bilal — a senior who had transferred to VAAS from Sherman Oaks CES and had to sit out the early part of the season —  began the game in centerfield. His first contribution was an RBI double in the fifth that tied the score at 2-2. The left-handed Bilal became a relief pitcher in the bottom of the seventh and, with the Rams having the winning run on second base and one out, struck out the two batters he faced in the inning to quash the threat.

In the top of the eighth, Bilal sparked the Vipers to a three-run rally with a leadoff single and eventually scoring the tie-breaking run on a hit to right by Mike Bernal.

Bilal thought tying the game in the fifth was the most important moment. “Doing that was a momentum-changer for us as a team. That was a big game-changer at that point,” he said.

There was an additional special moment following the trophy presentation. Vipers assistant coach Hank Burditt, while surrounded by players, dropped to one knee and proposed to girlfriend Elizabeth Venezia, a substitute teacher at Valley Academy.

“Miles, our catcher, told Hank ‘if we win the championship you’re proposing,’” McFadden said. “He agreed and they shook on the deal. Hank did come to me and said ‘win or lose I’m gonna do it.’ But the kids just knew (by winning) they were going to watch their assistant coach get engaged.”

How about that? Another future ring ceremony.