Baseball: St. Paul roster loaded for 2018
While other programs are retooling this season by welcoming in new players and coaching staffs, the St. Paul baseball team is humming along like a well-oiled machine.
With the 2017-18 school year winding down, the Buckaroos enter the spring season with the same cohesive group of players that helped guide the football and basketball teams to their best seasons in years. As the Bucks trade in their high tops for baseball cleats, the team members' familiarity with each other is their biggest asset.
"You can tell from day one, with pitchers and catchers, the team is very consistent," head coach Julio Vela said. "The team leaders just kind of take it. You have Justin (Herberger), Jaidyn (Jackson), Campbell (Smith), Spencer (Curtis) and Cody (Thompson). They're going on three years in high school and then all their summer seasons."
And that's just scratching the surface. St. Paul graduated just one player from last year's team and returns every starter from 2017.
There is no scramble to fill positions this year. There is very little feeling out of incoming players, outside of a few freshmen and newcomer Alex Dela Cerda. This is a group that knows each other up and down the roster.
"It's definitely a different feel and it's more like the team is what matters," Vela said. "We're not trying to find pieces and fit pieces."
On the pitcher's mound, the Buckaroos bring back junior Justin Herberger, who comes off a season in which he won Special District 2 Pitcher of the Year, despite the team's fourth-place finish in the league standings last year.
Herberger pitched the team's opening game against Catlin Gabel on March 12, helping the Bucks pick up a 13-1 victory to start the season. The team's No. 2 starter — junior Jaidyn Jackson — pitched five scoreless innings against the Neah-Kah-Nie Pirates on March 14, a game the Bucks won 4-0.
While Herberger and Jackson give the team as good of a one-two punch as just about any other program in the Special District 2, Vela is more impressed by the team's depth at the position. The Bucks can plug and play any number of pitchers into the lineup in any given situation, a luxury when rainouts force teams to play four or five games in a short span of time.
"We've got 11 guys who can throw strikes," Vela said. "Nobody is going to overpower anybody. Nobody is going to go out there with high velocity pitches or breaking balls, but we got 11 guys who can put it in the strike zone, and that's a great luxury to have."
Backing up the mound is a veritable all-star team's worth of talent in the field. Herberger was one of three First Team All-Conference selections last year, along with teammates Rawley Koch and Campbell Smith in the outfield. Jackson garnered Second Team honors in the infield, while Zach Brentano and Holden Smith were Honorable Mention selections at catcher and first base, respectively.
Added to the mix is junior Brady Weisz, who missed last season due to tearing his ACL in the fall of his junior year. Weisz will take over duties at catcher, allowing Brentano to move back to second base, which is his more natural position.
"We've been watching (Weisz) hit in practice and play behind the plate, and it is a big difference," Vela said. "You get back a kid who is a senior and who played all but last year —he's played in our system and knows what to do. We're excited."
And then there's Dela Cerda, who hasn't played since elementary school, but who has the size and speed to be an immediate difference maker.
"He throws the ball very, very well," Vela said. "It's very obvious that he doesn't have the experience of a high school level player, but he's a fast learner, is very athletic."
In his first high school at bat against Catlin Gabel, Dela Cerda drilled a ball to deep centerfield for a standup double. But as he got to second base, Dela Cerda kept his head down and kept going to third, missing Vela's calls for him to hold up, but beating the throw.
"The habit is to look up to coach, but he didn't even think about it," Vela said, laughing.
With a 2-0 start to the season, the Buckaroos are in a good place, but the team doesn't have long to rest on its accomplishments.
The Bucks were scheduled to host Portland Christian on Monday before opening with their first league game of the season on Tuesday against Country Christian.
That leads into a two-week break before their next game against Perrydale in April, though the Bucks likely will take that opportunity to reschedule a makeup game against the defending state champion Knappa Loggers, who were supposed to play in St. Paul last week, but had to postpone their contest due to rain.
Much like St. Paul's semifinalist football team and resurgent basketball team, this year's baseball team is ready for big things and has the personnel to do so.
Many of these players were on the team that won a share of the league title two years ago, and with enough luck, skill and determination, this year's team will be right back in the mix once again.