Last Update: Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cougars Look Ready Again To Play Hardball PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 20 March 2014 00:00

M. Terry / SFVS
Top Cats — Nick Rodriguez (left) and Felix Rubi are helping restore the Cougars’ position in the Valley as an elite baseball

The infield grass at Kennedy High seems a little greener this year, the infield dirt a little finer, the sound of the ball off the bat a little clearer. Then again, it could be a sense of calm that has returned to the Cougars’ program after a year of chaos and uncertainty.

At present the Cougars are 5-1 entering today’s March 20 game against visiting University of Los Angeles. Coach Andy Rodriguez already sees a more comfortable, confident squad from a year ago, a team that expects to challenge San Fernando and Sylmar for the Valley Mission League title — and perhaps more. “I think we have made big steps,” Rodriguez said. “They believe they are one of the better teams in the City. In the winter we were on a roller-coaster… it’s like a spring training. But they realized when they put it together, we’re pretty good. On the other hand, we saw how bad we could be when we didn’t come to play.”

Just as important, the Cougars have a steady hand at the wheel after their former head coach was ripped away from the program for circumstances and provocations that are still somewhat murky.

Rodriguez took over after Manny Alvarado was removed after the 2012 season. Alvarado had tremendous success in his 24 years at Kennedy, winning five City titles (the last in 2006). But he was suspended by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) during the 2012-13 academic year, according to published reports, following a district investigation of an alleged hazing incident outside the school weight room.

Alvarado was inside the weight room at the time and did not see the altercation, but was ultimately held responsible. Principal Suzanne Blake said there had been other hazing incidents in the program’s history. Alvarado and the United Teachers of Los Angeles union filed a grievance challenging the suspension, and it was ultimately overturned by an arbitrator. But Alvarado has a second arbitration issue involving a former Kennedy junior varsity coach who was arrested in June 2012 on suspicion of child endangerment after taking a group of junior varsity players to a Dodgers game and allegedly smoking marijuana with players in the car to and from the game.

According to LAUSD officials, Alvarado remains a district employee and continues to report to an unnamed office or facility outside of the school. No matter what side of the fence you’re on regarding Alvarado’s culpability, he has a large portion of the program’s legacy. And who knows if he would want the job back if and when he is fully reinstated. Still, Rodriguez, who was an assistant under Alvarado from 1999 to 2006, and was also a coach at Mission and Los Angeles Valley colleges before accepting the Kennedy job, has been able to establish some presence and parameters.

“Obviously, coming in after [Alvarado] there were big shoes to fill,” Rodriguez said. “What I knew I needed to do was 1) gain the trust of the players, and 2) gain the trust of the parents. Manny is a legend; there’s no doubt about it. There’ll never be another. I was not going to try and be another Manny. I was going to be myself, and knew what I offered could also be successful.”

Last year the Cougars were 18-12-1 overall and finished second in the Mission Valley League, but could not get past the first round of the Division I playoffs. Rodriguez realized, however, he still had a team and a program in transition.

“I think looking back, there were still players who didn’t buy in to what I have. But the ones coming back realized what I was bringing was something new, something different — a more collegiate style,” he said.

“At the collegiate level, it’s about hitting. And there’s always a sign for something. You have to stay in tune because if you miss a sign everyone else is on, you’ve got a problem.

They had to learn they had to stay focused for every pitch in every game they played. Your teammate is depending on you, everyone had to be on the same page. That was a lot to learn.” Rodriguez admits he came close to abandoning that approach, that maybe high school players didn’t have the collective maturity needed for that kind of system to work. But then he felt he was short-changing his team. “I thought to myself ‘no, I just need to keep working at it, and they could do it’ — as well as see who could respond to the challenge,” the coach said. Two of the players the Cougars will rely on to make this season memorable for on-thefield reasons are right-handed pitcher Felix Rubi, a junior, and shortstop Nick Rodriguez, a senior.

Rubi is off to a 2-0 start after pitching an eight-inning complete game against Bell on March 14, a game won by Kennedy 5-4. While tagged for four runs in the second inning by the host Eagles, Rubi also showed why he is considered the Cougar’s ace, keeping Bell scoreless the rest of the game (including a one-out, bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the sixth) until his teammates could come back and win.

Rubi said he might not have been mentally strong enough last season to hang in after Bell took a 4-1 lead in the second. “Honestly, I probably would have folded up like Coach says pitchers sometimes do. But I hung in there, hoping my team could come back and they did.” The comeback victory was another sign to Rubi that things could be different in 2014.

“We know we have talent and we’re real positive about this season…our talent overall is spread out, and we have a good pitching staff, and a good defense behind us,” he said. “We’re real comfortable with each other. I think we’re ready.”

Nick Rodriguez, who measures 6-2 and weighs 170, has the kind of defensive range and clutch bat that’s drawn the attention of college scouts (including a couple who visited a Kennedy practice on Monday, March 17.) They also like the fact he can easily put another 15-20 pounds of muscle and probably not lose any of the speed that has him four of four in stolen bases so far this season.

At present he is eager to eliminate an lingering bad vibes from 2013 that might still be hovering around the team.

“There were some frustrations… we had a new coach and we want to get him on that top pedestal in his first year; we wanted to take him to the City championship game but it didn’t pan out,” Nick Rodriguez said.

“It was a very frustrating year for us. But there’s a lot better feeling about this year. Everybody understands their role, and what’s got to be done to get to that championship level in June.”

Of course, June is still a ways off. And besides San Fernando and Sylmar, there are plenty of other Division I teams like Chatsworth, El Camino Real, Roosevelt of Los Angeles, Banning of Wilmington and Narbonne of Harbor City who possess genuine City championship aspirations.

So Kennedy won’t mind if, right now, it's under everyone else’s radar. After enduring the upheaval all around them last year, the Cougars are happy for the semblance of serenity they currently enjoy, and will go about their business. If they can go deep into the postseason, that’s a level of madness they will enjoy.