It’s hard to believe that one has to go back as far as 2002 to find the last time Sylmar Charter High had a shot at a winning a City section baseball championship. That year the Spartans reached the Division I final, losing 1-0 to Cleveland High.
And you would have to dig even deeper in the record books to find the baseball championships the Spartans have won — 1973 and 1980.
The Sylmar coaches and players certainly aren’t predicting any banners for 2022. There are a plethora of top teams in the Valley, including Birmingham, El Camino Real, Granada Hills, Kennedy, Poly, San Fernando and Verdugo Hills, as well as other looming competition in defending Open Division San Pedro, Marshall, Palisades, and Roosevelt.
But people are having to pay attention to the Spartans like they haven’t done so in several years. The program is definitely on the rise in 2022, and elbowing its way into potential championship conversations.
Nothing would make Coach Ray Rivera happier. He was an assistant coach on that 2002 team, and has been the head coach since 2003. He’s had a couple of excellent teams — most notably the 2014 squad that finished 22-14 overall — as well as average ones that have struggled to break the grip on the Valley Mission League held by Kennedy and San Fernando.
Now they are getting there. The Spartans were co-league champs with Kennedy in 2021 — their first league title of any sort since 2009. They are currently atop of the league this season and have already faced the Tigers and Cougars, sweeping the season series against the former and splitting the series with the latter, meaning the toughest part of the schedule is seemingly behind them. Kennedy still has its two games against San Fernando to play.
Best of all is the group of players themselves — a feisty, combative mixture of savvy seniors, and a sophomore class which — in baseball IQ terms — is collectively moving past precocious and edging toward preternatural.
“The younger group that we have, the 10th graders, they kind of grew up playing ball together,” Rivera said. “I shouldn’t say they all grew up playing together; but they’ve played a bit more competitive baseball [other than] the just Little League type style of baseball; they kind of had an idea coming in — what it was to compete, and how to compete.”
Several of the sophomores got valuable playing time on varsity as freshmen, Rivera said. The coaches could see their instincts and skills broaden during summer practices. And they have also absorbed the approach to the game that Rivera expects and preaches.
“If you look at our guys, they’re not necessarily the biggest, strongest kids around. And that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to sell them on: just because we’re not the biggest and strongest guys around doesn’t mean we can’t compete,” Rivera said.
“And they have bought into the whole ‘playing with a chip on their shoulder’ because people are going to overlook them because, they don’t necessarily ‘look’ the part [of being very athletic]. But you get them on the field and they just get after it. They’re not afraid.”
That was evident in the road losses at Kennedy and El Camino Real this past weekend. In each game the Spartans got down early and could have mentally quit. But they kept playing hard, barely losing to the Cougars, and then falling to the Royals in the bottom off the seventh of a nonleague tournament game.
Sylmar (10-6-1, 6-1) got back on track by defeating Reseda Monday, April 4. (Results from Wednesday’s game against Reseda were not available at press time).
The injection of youth has excited the upperclassmen, who embraced them quickly.
“Ever since we met each other, we just always have each other’s backs,” said Juan Martinez, 17, one of the five Sylmar seniors “We’re always there for each other, in the classroom or on the field. We’re always with each other and we have a good spark together.”
“We’re telling them that anything is possible,” said Frank Garcia, 18, a senior. “That we can be one of the better teams in the City section; that we can compete with anyone around.”
Fellow senior Favian Pinon Espinoza echoes his teammates’ sentiments. “There is chemistry between everyone. This group [holds each other] to high standards,” he said
And it is why, Espinoza believes, the Spartans should not sell short their aspirations for this season.
“Last time Sylmar won a (City) title? I know it’s been awhile. But we have [the talent] to get there,” he said.
Belief in yourself and competing no matter the odds are some of the lessons Rivera always hopes to pass on to his players, knowing how it can impact their lives on and off the field. There comes a time when the bats and balls will be put away, but life will go on.
“Everything we do here is life-based,” the coach said. “Every lesson we try and teach, yeah it’s baseball but it’s also life related. They may not truly understand the life lessons that we’re trying to teach using baseball sometimes for 5-10 years after the fact. Then they can revert back and say, ‘Well, okay, this is what coach was talking about, This is what he was trying to teach us about.’”
But Rivera has a potential group of players — both current and futuristic — that could define the program in a signature way the next couple of years. And he feels blessed to have a front row seat to their continued maturity and development.
“I’ve been lucky through the years that most of my kids understand where I’m coming from as a coach and what my expectations are, even as ninth graders,” the coach said. “I think this group, a lot of them have brothers who’ve been through the program, and cousins who have been through the program. So they know coming in what they’re getting themselves into, and it wasn’t a shock to them.
“They’ve never, ever questioned any of that stuff. So I’m lucky with the kids I get to work with.”