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Sylmar has “24” Reasons for Its Improvement PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 24 April 2014 06:51

M. Terry / SFVS

Committed To Excellence — Sylmar seniors (l-r) Victor Ramirez, Alex Gutierrez and Jose Holguin are three reasons why the Spartans lead the Mission Valley League.

Team Points To Subpar Ranking As The Motivation For Turning Things Around

Right-hander Victor Ramirez is wearing the number “24” on a multi-blue colored shirt before a Sylmar High baseball practice. It is not his uniform number, nor is it a tribute to his favorite player, television show or a nickname.

It is also not exclusive. Every Sylmar player has one.

“24” is where the Spartans finished in the City rankings last year. Being 24th does not get you into the playoffs; there are only 16 seeded berths and four play-in slots. Being 24th means your season was not worth remembering — unless it is going to be motivation.

The Spartans have been strongly motivated in 2014. They are 17-6 overall, and lead the Valley Mission League with a 6-1 record an 11-1 victory over Van Nuys on April 22.

They are currently ranked eighth among the City’s Division I teams; winning the league outright might get them one of the top four playoff seeds.

That has been the mission, the goal, since the end of last year’s 14-18 campaign.

“Every day is another day of work,” said Ramirez, 18, a senior. “No doubt we are working harder because we don’t want to be ranked 24th again. And the team is working every day.”

Catcher Alex Guiterrez, 17, a senior, also speaks to the “power” of 24.

“It’s to remind us of the struggles and all the ‘downs’ we had last year,” Guiterrez said. “To remind us every time we step on the field we need to give 125 percent, to strive to be better than is what on the shirt (being the 24th ranked City team last year). It’s a reminder that it’s what the rest of the City and everyone else around us thinks is what we are. We know we’re better than that.”

It’s not hard to get a smile out of Ray Rivera. But it’s not easy, either. If there is such a thing as being “naturally intense,” that vibe emanates constantly from the 15-year Sylmar coach.

Still there is an inescapable feeling of pride that emerges from Rivera in describing the growth and desire of his team to turn things around.

“After not making the playoffs last year, we had it set in our minds that people would overlook us, and not necessarily give us respect because we didn’t earn that,” Rivera said. “That ‘24’ shirt is a reminder to them of last year. We were the 24th seeded team, so we didn’t get into the playoffs. That was their reminder the whole offseason. The kids bought into it, and have been working hard since the offseason.”

Rivera goes on to say it’s not as if the Spartans were a horrible team or one decimated by injuries. Rather, it was still a maturing team: learning to play defense with the same confidence in the sixth and seventh innings the way it did in the first and second; learning how to pitch well; learning how get the clutch hit; learning how not to lose games late.

“We were up on a lot of teams last year,” the coach said. “If you were to go back and see the teams we played, how many of them were in the playoffs, and look at box scores, I’m gonna say in more than 50 percent of those games we were ahead late, tied, or had a chance to win.

"We were 14-18; we could have been 20-10 if we had taken care of the baseball and gotten some clutch hits here and there. If we do all the little things we were preaching, it would have been a different year.”

It appears the lessons were absorbed. “Last season left a very sour taste; we don’t want another season like that,” said first baseman Jose Holguin, 18, a senior. “And it’s our senior year, too. We want to go out as champs. The goal was no different in the offseason. But after we put in the work during the offseason, it put us one step closer to being in Dodger Stadium, hopefully.”

“I think our coach has talked us into understanding it’s a process,” adds Guiterrez. “You need to fail to succeed. Because if you don’t fail you won’t appreciate success very much. Us failing last year showed us how it feels. It brought us to our lowest point, and we don’t want to be there any more. And we have overcome that.”

Holguin, Guiterrez and Ramirez are among the 10 seniors that entered Sylmar as freshmen and have been playing baseball together here for four years. The above trio are having strong seasons: Ramirez is 4-1 with a 1.95 earned run average, giving up 21 hits while striking out 22 and walking four in 32.1 innings; Guiterrez is batting .352 with 19 hits and 22 RBIs; and Holguin has a robust .446 batting average, with 29 hits (including three home runs) and 25 RBIs.

But Rivera considers all 10 seniors being integral to the accomplishments of the team so far.

“I want them to be recognized for sticking with it,” he said. “They’ve all been here since ninth grade; their brothers played for me, some of their dads played here. These guys came here as ninth graders with the mindset of carrying on that tradition and build it to what it should be.

“They’ve stayed. They didn’t get caught up in somebody trying to draw them away from here. They said Sylmar would be their home school, that this is where they belonged. It means a lot, not just to me but also the community itself.”

There was an initial spasm of doubt when the Spartans lost their first two games to Verdugo Hills and Culver City, an “oh no, not again” kind of doubt. “Yeah I can’t lie, I did think that,” Ramirez said. “But I also thought ‘I’m not gonna let this happen, I’m not giving up.’ There were plenty of games left. And every time I step on the mound just do my best and let the defense do the rest.”

A win over Campbell Hall quickly dissipated the doubts and got the Spartans’ season going. Key victories against Eastside of Lancaster, Arleta, South Gate, Narbonne of Harbor City followed. They’ve also split the two-game series with defending league and City champion San Fernando; Ramirez threw a complete game shutout for the 2-0 win.

This will be a busy and critical week for the Spartans. Along with the games against Van Nuys, Sylmar has a nonleague contest against Banning of Wilmington, one of the teams ahead of them in the prospective playoff seedings. The Spartans want to play with momentum going into next week’s showdown games against Kennedy. Like Sylmar, the Golden Cougars began the week with only one league loss.

But the Kennedy games are not here yet. Sylmar has been good about concentrating on who’s immediately on the schedule. That’s been as important as the “24” shirts they wear.

And the Spartans are also smart enough to know the season can and will unravel if they think they can coast into the playoffs.

“We need a little bit more focus, a little bit more determination by everybody,” Holguin said. “People may be getting tired, but it’s also time to bring out that little extra we’ve got. Leave it all on the field because it is our senior year.

“It’s our last year playing together; most of us will split up after high school. And there will be nothing better than meeting up again in 20 years and remembering a great season.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 24 April 2014 06:58