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Looking Ahead To Bigger Things PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry, Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 03 May 2012 02:05

Verdugo Hills Has Wrapped Up The East Valley League, And A Win Against Cleveland This Weekend Could Help The Dons Move Up In The City Division I Standings


Dons' Dynamic Duo – Armando Esparza, a junior, and Gabe Guerra, a senior, have boosted the Verdugo Hills baseball team to the East Valley League title. The Dons finish their regular season on Saturday with a nonleague game against Cleveland.

After finishing second in the East Valley League the past couple of years, Verdugo Hills broke through this season to win its second East Valley title in four years, and its first outright league championship since winning the Sunset Six League crown in 2008.

But the Dons know that league titles, especially today, are more like the crust of the pie. And they're eager to taste the rest of it.

If you're not fully aware of this 19-10 team tucked away in Tujunga, don't feel bad or alone. The Verdugo Hills players know they won't get the same kind of attention given to defending Los Angeles City champion San Fernando, or Chatsworth or Kennedy or El Camino Real. Nor does their league warrant the same level of respect in baseball as the West Valley or Valley Mission.

That doesn't mean the Dons don't have talent or a desire to get baseball fans to notice.

That could change on Saturday, May 5, when Verdugo Hills plays its season finale against Cleveland in a Poly Classic tournament game. The 15-11-1 Cavaliers may be in the middle of the West Valley League standings, but they also have West Valley cred. A victory could boost the Dons' hopes of finishing high enough in the City playoff standings to merit a first round home game.

Coach Angel Espindola, now in his fourth year, believes he has the kind of team this season that can honestly think about competing with the toptier Valley teams.

"I have a good set of kids this year," Espindola said. "It's a team that is unselfish, that's worked hard from the starting nine to the bench. All of them know their roles, and will do what is good for the team."

Eleven players on the roster are seniors, Espindola said. Three of them – Ray Carranza, Joe Armstrong and Gabe Guerra – have been on the varsity since they were sophomores, and Guerra came up halfway through his freshman year.

"Those three have seen and been through a lot," Espindola said. "They took over the team this year, and gave it the right attitude."

No Don has been more important that Guerra, 17, who has been a dual threat as a pitcher and a hitter.

On the mound, the left-handed Guerra sports a 1.25 earned run average despite a 3-4 record, giving up only eight earned runs and 22 hits in 44.1 innings. In his four losses to Pacific Palisades, Birmingham, San Fernando and Monroe, his teammates scored a total of nine runs.

Guerra's bat has been booming, however. He's hitting .418, and leads the Dons in hits (38) and runs batted in (29). He has three home runs among his 11 extra-base hits.

"When he first came up, he was a pitcher only," Espindola said. "His bat is now catching up to the varsity level. He had a gifted arm for a lefty. But last year, his offense also started clicking. This year his control got better, and his eye at the plate got better.

"He's gotten better pitches to hit; he's matured at the plate. He knows what pitches he can handle. This year everything has come together, in the classroom and the field.

Guerra, who will start against Cleveland on Saturday, admits he wasn't always as dedicated to the books as he was his curveball. "Earlier I would be eligible just for baseball," he said. "I've been better about grades since my sophomore year."

The improved mental focus has also shown up on the field. "I'm trying to throw more strikes now" when he pitches. "And I'm taking batting more seriously in the game. Before I just [swinging]. But now I wait for my pitch."

What also has Guerra excited is the Dons' team.

"I think we're pretty good," he said. "We've been pretty good all year long. And when we came back from the Las Vegas tournament (during spring break), we started playing even harder knowing the season was almost over.

"I think we could possibly make it pretty far in the playoffs. All our losses have been pretty close...hopefully we're in the Top 10 when the playoffs start, but if we're not we'll be out there trying to win."

Guerra isn't the only alpha male on the Dons.

Right-handed pitcher Armando Esparza, a junior, may only be 16. But he has a presence on the pitching mound that goes beyond his chronological age.

His lean, 6-foot frame gives no indication of the kind of workhorse he is. But he is 8-2 overall with a 1.60 ERA, has logged 65.1 innings this season, and has thrown seven complete games, including the 8-2 league-clinching victory against Poly on April 27.

"I knew that game (could win the league)," said Esparza, whose only real misstep was giving up a two-run homer to Poly's Fabian Rodriguez in the top of the fourth.

When Esparza was promoted to the varsity this season, he felt he needed a pitch that could make him more difficult to hit. He found one – on the Internet.

He said he learned to throw a two-seam fastball "by Googling it." His pitch has a cutting motion that moves away from left-handers, but bores into right-handers.

"I've been getting a lot more groundballs with it," he said.

"That kid is a 'gamer,'" Espindola said of Esparza. "You see him off the field and he's a real calm guy, really laid back. But between the lines he is a different guy.

"In the beginning, I wasn't sure if he would mentally be 'there,' that his focus may be off. But he has showed me he is a game time pitcher. He pitches better when there is somebody on base, and thrives on big situations."

Even though Esparza will not start against Cleveland (but will be available from the bullpen), he will be a key, along with Guerra, to any kind of playoff run the Dons make.

With so many strong City teams the odds may be against them, but they don't care. The Dons will bring their "A" game with them, and all of the other letters in the alphabet as well.

"I knew this team was going to be good," Esparza said. "This is my first year on varsity and it's been exciting…I've been looking forward to the playoffs since the beginning of the season."

They're almost here.

And so is Verdugo Hills.