Safe at 1st

By Judd Liebman 

In both 2005 and 2006, the baseball team under former Head Coach Tim Cunningham did not win a game in the tough Mission League. The league hasn’t gotten any easier in the past five or six years, yet the Wolverines have just captured the elusive league title for the first time in school history.

In his five years as program head, Head Coach Matt LaCour has slowly but surely built an empire. He transformed a program with a team that could not win a game in league into one that boasts a 10-2 Mission League championship. The change didn’t come because of an increase in veteran presence but from a change in mentality. In fact, this year, the team is extremely young compared to the past.

“LaCour is more hard-nosed and has more of a ‘let’s get it done’ mentality, while Cunningham was more relaxed,” outfielder Wes Peacock ’11 said. “[Cunningham] was still a good coach, but LaCour’s mentality meshed better with Harvard-Westlake’s competitive atmosphere.”

Despite the team’s youth, it managed to sweep all but two season series, losing only to Alemany and Chaminade in league. The program LaCour built has worked to develop players like pitcher and outfielder Jack Flaherty ’14. Although he came to the school in ninth grade, Flaherty worked over the summer with the team to sharpen his skills and get familiar with the program.

Flaherty, the number two starting pitcher, has dominated the Mission League, enjoying a 1.92 regular season ERA and a .309 batting average.

“The coaches here have really helped me a lot,” Flaherty said. “They have worked on everything from my swing to having a plan on the mound.”

Lucas Giolito ’12 and Flaherty are a lethal one-two punch in the pitching rotation. Giolito, a UCLA commit, has commanded the batters this year, leading him to a 1.22 ERA with a 7-1 record in the regular season.

Flaherty’s youth doesn’t affect his play, LaCour said.

“[Flaherty] is really inexperienced in high school, he’s not necessarily inexperienced on the baseball field,” he said. “He’s played a lot of baseball. He’s a mature baseball player, he knows where to be. So, no, I’m not really surprised [with his play].”

Giolito’s early season offensive worries for his team have been quelled by explosive hitting by his young teammates. Catcher Arden Pabst ’13 has risen to his starting role, hitting .434 with 28 RBIs in only 76 at-bats in the regular season. Pabst’s break-out year comes after playing in the Harvard-Westlake program since he was a seventh grader at a different school, he said. “I was in the Harvard-Westlake program with the [club baseball team the] Rats, so I have been with the program for a while,” he said. “I am familiar with the program and I know what I need to do. I know what kind of program we are.””The sophomore class has been exposed to our coaching staff and our training regimen from the day they entered seventh grade, and the success that they have had on the field this year can to a large extent be attributed to the process we have had in place over the last four years,” LaCour said. “Both at the middle school and on the club level, these players have been trained to play at a high level.”

Six years ago, this was not the case. Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas said the mentality of LaCour’s program is extremely different than it was.

“[Six] years ago, we came off a season when we went [winless] in league,” he said. “On senior ditch day, we only had four kids show up to practice.”

LaCour’s method has brought a lot of talent to the team this year, Barzdukas said. The younger players have shined this year, as underclassmen hold the two highest batting averages among the starters with Pabst and Joe Corrigan ’13 (batting .369).

“Our baseball program is a true program,” Barzdukas said. “It is as well integrated philosophically in terms of coaching and communication from seventh to 12th grade as any program that we have.”

“They’ve been through our gambit from the beginning,” LaCour said. “Our guys know what’s expected as soon as they walk on to the field in ninth grade.”

With a deadly pitching staff and dangerous bats, the team has moved into the second round of the CIF playoffs against Arroyo Grande after defeating Valencia 5-0 on Thursday. Behind Giolito’s six innings, the team shut out the Vikings, only giving up three hits. Giolito’s eight strikeouts were followed up by reliever Connor Dillman’s ’11 1-2-3 seventh inning with two strikeouts and a forced groundball. Even though he wasn’t on the mound, Flaherty made his mark on the game, batting 2-3 with two singles.

“Zero errors today, that’s huge,” a giddy Giolito said after the game. “If the defense makes good plays behind me, only good things can happen.”

Giolito, who was a young prospect himself last year, doesn’t think age has affected his team’s play. His team is playing so well, he said, because of an increase in focus.

“We had a good team last year, but our team this year is really close, we’re clicking together,” he said. “Every batter is taken really seriously; every pitch is taken seriously. There is a lot of focus.”

The first Mission League isn’t the end for LaCour and company this year, as Division II CIF playoffs pose a big challenge to the fifth seeded Wolverines.

“There is no doubt that we will sit back when this is all over, that we will say ‘hey, that was special,’” LaCour said about the league title.

“It’s been really a good year, but it’s not over because we have high goals,” Pabst said. “We’ll see where it goes from here.”

If the Wolverines defeat Arroyo Grande, their next game will be Friday.