There’s a lot to live up to when you put on the Cougar uniform. In baseball perhaps especially so, where the last few years have seen a couple of state championships and Section banners brought home.
So it’s not too surprising that this year’s squad is having some jitters early, taking into account that plenty of seniors have departed and there are a few sophomores among the varsity mix.
The team hosted Downey in its opener on Friday, Feb. 22 and put an 8-4 win on the books, but had its share of trouble.
“It wasn’t easy, we made a lot of mental mistakes,” head coach Greg Largent said. “We have only three juniors that came out, we brought up three sophomores and we have some returners, we are fielding 14 kids right now and they are feeling the pressure.”
The Cougars, in fact, spotted Downey a 2-0 lead with single runs in the second and third. Escalon got a pair back in the third, with senior Robbie Steves knocking in a run and Vince Valenzuela also getting an RBI on a ground out.
“We erupted for six runs in the sixth,” Largent said.
Keys were a pinch hit single by Raymond Guevara, a crucial sacrifice bunt by Brandon Grogan, RBI single from Phillip Kimble, a troublesome fly ball to short right field by Garrett Denczek that was dropped by the second baseman and a two-run homer from Ben Hood.
Brent Montgomery got the start on the mound and went five innings, with Nathan Chunn getting the final two innings of work. Escalon had 11 hits on the day, Downey had seven.
Thursday, Feb. 28, the boys went to Sierra and ended with a 3-3 draw in the ninth inning, the game called due to darkness.
“We stranded nine runners,” Largent said of being unable to take advantage of opportunities.
Escalon got runs in the second and fourth, Sierra tied it in the fifth, with the Cougars taking the lead again in the sixth. Sierra tied it in the seventh to force the extra innings. Valenzuela had an RBI double in the second inning, Owen Pangilinan added a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
“We had first and third with no outs in the ninth,” Largent said, noting that a double play erased that threat.
Montgomery pitched seven innings and had great command of his pitches, striking out seven while walking two. Ben Hood pitched two innings and allowed one hit and struck out three as the Cougars settled for the unusual tie.
Friday, they headed to Sonora for a night game, battling the chilly weather.
“We squandered a three-run lead and lost 4-3,” said Largent.
The field, however, also provided some bumps and bruises, as the ball took unusual hops on the recently re-done field.
“They had to play on it, too,” Largent noted of the host Sonora team, but said of the five errors the Cougars were charged with, only one was a legitimate miscue.
Big hits in the contest came from Steves, an RBI single and Kimble with a two out RBI single.
Up 3-0, the visiting Escalon team saw Sonora score one in the fourth and then in the fifth, committed three errors and allowed a couple of hits to the Wildcats, leading to the comeback.
“We had the bases loaded with one out in the sixth,” Largent said, but couldn’t make the threat pay off. “We stranded 13 this game.”
Kevin Gregorio pitched three and two-thirds, leaving with the bases loaded, and Alec Nerland came on in relief to quell that rally,
“Garrett Denczek, our back-up catcher, did a great job and Nerland coming on in relief, he threw strikes and gave up three runs, but only one earned.”
Still, the game was a loss and the Cougars had it all, a win, a loss and a tie, in their first three games.
Seniors returning this season are Robbie Steves (3B, 2B), Phillip Kimble (SS), Nathan Chunn (C/P), Raymond Guevara (Utility), Alec Nerland (2B/P), Tad Dimas (OF), Brent Montgomery (P) and Vince Valenzuela (1B/DH).
Juniors are Luis Estrada, Ben Hood and Owen Pangilinan, with sophomores called up including Kevin Gregorio, Brandon Grogan and Garrett Denczek.
“We learned this summer that Garrett was the guy (to back up Chunn at catcher), we need someone to catch when Chunn is on the mound,” Largent said. “We’ve built a tough preseason schedule for them again, there are big expectations and the guys know what’s at stake.”
Early on, said Largent, the players may actually be thinking too much, and need to focus on the game being played, not looking down the road to Trans-Valley League action or beyond.
This week, they will take their ‘beach trip’ to play at Aptos on Friday, Pacific Grove on Saturday.
Along with Largent, the coaching staff remains the same as last season, with assistants Dusty Fox, Ross Brayton, Steve Largent and Harold Hood.