The Granada Hills Charter High baseball team is on a mission.
Hold on: isn’t every team in the City Section in the upcoming playoffs on a mission over the next two weeks to win one of the four division championships?
Perhaps a more correct way of saying it is, this year the Highlanders have a better understanding of what the mission is — and, just as importantly, how to go about it.
On Monday, May 9, Granada Hills — as expected — was named the top seed in the upcoming Open Division. Part of that was a reward for winning the West Valley, one of City’s most competitive baseball leagues, with a 9-1 mark. But the Highlanders (23-4-1) have also been the section’s most consistent team this year as well, and are a favorite to win it all.
That feels, somewhat, like a rerun of the 2021 season. The Highlanders won the West Valley League last year with a 9-1 record, were the top seed in the Open Division — and a favorite to win it all. But there is a discernible difference.
Last year was the first time Granada Hills had won anything in baseball for a long time. And there was still a critical lesson for this group of players to learn: the regular season and the playoffs are two distinct entities, and few will remember what you did in the former if you flame out in the latter. Which is what the Highlanders did in getting bounced by Birmingham Charter High in the quarterfinals.
The memory is painful, the players say. But it has been a motivation for wanting to get to the final at Dodger Stadium on May 28.
“I feel like last year we kind of took our foot off the gas pedal the last few games [after winning league],” said outfielder Trent Wainfeld, a senior. “We weren’t hitting as much, the practices were not as good. But this year we know that we really have to put in the effort the next two weeks for the playoffs.”
Pitcher Drew Gustafson, a senior and the ace of the staff, is in full agreement with Wainfield.
“I think we … weren’t so used to that kind of pressure of being the top dogs,” Gustafson said. “So I think, yeah, that’s why we came up short [against Birmingham].
“Our team this year is really senior heavy. And a lot of our seniors, we’ve been playing together since like Little League; we all know each other, we have a really good bond. I think a lot of our guys have more experience now. They’ve been under that pressure. They’ve felt that before. It’s nothing new to them.”
Adds pitcher Zach Perez, a senior, “I think we’re calmer, because last year was a lot of guys’ first year playing a full season on varsity. So going into the playoffs, I don’t know how well they thought of it or what they were feeling. [This year] the goal for everyone here is winning the City Section championship.”
It’s not as if Granada Hills baseball program is bereft of banners. The Highlanders won four City titles in the 1970s, a City 4A title in 1984 and City Invitational championships in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
But there has been a definite downslide in the quality of the baseball played. From 2005 to 2018, the Highlanders had only two seasons where they won more than they lost. Birmingham, Chatsworth, El Camino Real and also Cleveland have been the dominant league programs; Granada Hills was barely an afterthought.
The arrival of Coach Matt Matuszak in 2018 has restored a sense of confidence and stability to the program. The players say he is firm without being overbearing; and while he wants things done a certain way, he allows them to be themselves.
“I think he just knows how to run a practice a lot better than the [previous] coaches,” Gustafson said. “It’s more efficient. Some of the other coaches, a lot of players didn’t like them. They were really strict and kind of, like, old-fashioned.”
Perez gives Matuszak props for keeping the team’s collective mind from wandering during games.
“Between innings, he’ll come over and talk to us, and give us something to think about [what the other pitcher is doing or something about what the other team is doing],” Perez said. “He does a good job of keeping our team focused all the time and locked in during the whole game.”
For his part, Matuszak is pleased with the maturity of his 2022 team, not only taking that playoff loss to heart — “they talk about it every day” — but wanting to grow from it.
“Last year’s team was very junior-heavy, with some other young guys. And we were a number one, it was nice to see that,” Matuszak said. “But with that, I think we kind of made some mistakes, you know, maybe thinking we were a little better than we were and sometimes losing some focus, sometimes not having the best practices.
“I think we’ve gotten over those mistakes we made to move people forward.”
The 12-team Open Division bracket — which starts play on May 17 — is certainly overstuffed with high-grade opponents. Besides league rivals Birmingham, Chatsworth, Cleveland and El Camino Real, strong challenges could come from teams inside the Valley like Poly and Sylmar, and outside the Valley from Carson Palisades, Roosevelt, and San Pedro. A true bracket wild card is Marshall High, which is riding a 20-game winning streak.
But this year, Granada Hills is eager to embrace the one-and-done pressure, not implode from it.
“We want to win it,” Wainfeld said. “It would mean a lot to us for how much work we’ve put in and just because this school hasn’t won one in so long. It would be special.”