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Vikings Are Navigating A Better Course PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 27 March 2014 02:49

M. Terry / SFVS
Hitting More Than Their Stride — Monroe players Rene Banuelos (left) and David Reyes have their team and their lives
moving in a more positive direction.

Monroe Is Turning Things Around After A Disastrous 2013 Baseball Season

Basketball isn’t the only sport where you rebound. But rebounding in other sports has nothing to do with grabbing an errant shot off a backboard. It’s usually about overcoming obstacles or adversity, sometimes selfinflicted, and heading in a more positive direction.

So if you look at the Monroe High baseball team, and surmised there was more here than just a team off to an 8-4 start, you’d be right.

There’s a lot of rebounding going on. Start with head coach Mike Wagner, now in his sixth season, who endured a miserable 2013 season. The Vikings were 8-22-1 overall, and the situation was as bad as the record suggests.

“It was a toxic group of guys who did not get along,” Wagner said, in describing last year’s team. “Perhaps the talent and ability was there but they didn’t play as a group. We were 0-10- 1 out the chute; I’d never had a situation like that. We never had a year like that. Every move we attempted didn’t work.

“I guess there are years when that can happen.” No coach can — or should — come out of a season like that and not do some soul-searching. And Wagner, who can be intense and demanding on the field, did that during the summer, wondering if he could still lead a team.

“I thought maybe I was out of touch. But my competitive nature would not let me finish on a year like that. And it would have been too easy to leave after that,” Wagner said.

“All the coaches looked at ourselves first; we had to do a better job. Then there was a trickle-down effect to the team. And this year we have a combination of kids who get along much better.”

Wagner and his coaches weren’t the only ones who had to re-think things.

Rene Banuelos is currently the Vikings’ leading hitter and pitcher. At the plate the 6-6, 270-pound righthanded senior has 16 hits in 36 at-bats (.444) and 12 runs batted in. On the mound his record may be 1-2, but he’s allowed only one earned run in a teamhigh 18.1 innings — an 0.38 earned run average — with has twice as many strikeouts (15) as walks (7).

But Banuelos will tell you he is lucky to be on the varsity this spring. He was one of those “toxic” personalities Wagner referred to, and eventually left the team last year — with no one begging him to stay.

“Last year I had a lot of attitude,” Banuelos said. “If a teammate made an error, I was the guy who put him down. I had to grow up.”

He thought he might not play again until he left Monroe for good. But Banuelos, 18, saw how much he missed the game, and being part of the team. So he called Wagner during the summer, unsolicited, and asked for another chance.

“I wanted to come back and knew I had to do a lot of things to get back in his confidence. ‘I know your respect for me was lost because of my actions and I really want to turn that around,’” Banuelos said. “I think I matured and I know how to act. I never thought of transferring; I thought at first I’d have to wait until college to play, but I thought it through and realized I wanted to play now.

” Wagner didn’t make it easy for him, giving Banuelos a list of things to do, like coming to summer and fall practice before everyone else. Banuelos did everything Wagner asked and did not complain. Now he is part of something that could evolve into something special. David Reyes is another rebounder at Monroe, but for different reasons.

The third baseman, a senior, was at Kennedy High last year but only for awhile. Even though he showed promise on the Cougars freshman and junior varsity teams, Reyes had little interest in keeping his grades up, and that kept him off the field in 2011. He admits he also had a dark side to his personality that was out of control.

“I was unhappy [at Kennedy] but you can also say I was a bad kid, always looking for trouble,” said Reyes, 17. “I was a hothead. “I got kicked out of school. And I realized I had to change my life. When I transferred here I realized there were things I had to do to get it together. And I started focusing more on school.

” When he transferred to Monroe, Reyes sought out Wagner and inquired about playing on the team, not knowing if the coach knew anything about his past reputation and would not want to be bothered with a perceived malcontent.

That’s not how Wagner plays ball. “He told me if I wanted to play, just show him what I’ve got and do what I have to do in school and I’d be fine,” Reyes said about his meeting with the coach. “I feel better and the team has helped; I feel they are more like a family for me. I’ve made close friends here.”

Reyes is pounding the ball at a .385 clip (15 for 39), and driven in 10 runs. He’s also pitched when needed, and has a 1-1 record and 2.69 ERA, with 10 strikeouts against one walk in 13 innings.

Reyes is also glad to be part of a team that’s not just winning, but happy.

“Coming in from Kennedy I had heard stories about Monroe, and that they had a bad reputation [for playing sports],” he said. “But they have shocked me; they’re pretty good. I was glad I could come here and help out.

” Monroe last played for a City championship in 2009 (losing to Westchester of Los Angeles) when they were in Division II.

The Vikings are in Division I now where making the playoffs is difficult enough, never mind winding up at Dodger Stadium for the final. Just winning the East Valley League, which houses solid baseball programs at Arleta, North Hollywood, Poly, Verdugo Hills, is a worthy challenge.

But no matter how the rest of the Vikings’ 2014 story turns out, starting with the March 26 game against Grant, maybe the best chapters have already been written. The winning and losing is almost incidental. The life lessons learned will last a lot longer than the bottom of the ninth.