It seems like a long time ago that the SCCS varsity baseball team owned a 5-6 record. To the casual observer, one game under .500 is not where the defending Heritage League champions were supposed to be.
This was almost the same roster that went 19-1 during the regular season in 2014, steamrolling opponents on their way to a CIF-Southern Section Division VII top ranking heading into the playoffs. But it was also the roster that fell two rounds short of a section title, something Cardinal head coach Garrick Moss set out to change in 2015.
Last year’s team fattened up on a relatively soft pre-league schedule, which got softer once league play began. Moss and the Cardinals found out the hard way in 2014 that blowing out less talented teams in March and April is not the most direct route to a CIF championship.
If the 2015 version of Cardinal baseball wanted to win it all, it needed stronger pre-league competition.
Moss found that competition by moving up several divisions. On the way to losing six of its first 10 games, SCCS faced two opponents from Division II school: Lynwood and Littlerock (twice) and another team from Division V: Rio Hondo. The Cardinals also scheduled two of the toughest schools in Division VII: Dunn and Animo Leadership.
“Last year I didn’t schedule non-league good enough,” Moss said. “We were 19-1 going in to playoffs and I kept saying we were overrated. I felt that we weren’t tested – hadn’t faced playoff-level pitching, pressure situations.”
The tougher early-season schedule didn’t look good in the win-loss column, but Moss already knew his team would do well enough in league to get into the playoffs. He wanted to prepare them for the challenge afterward.
“We have pretty big expectation this year,” Moss said. “Last year we lost in the CIF quarterfinals to the team that lost in finals by one run, so we knew we were a team that had chance, even last year.”
SCCS returned all of its starters from that team, including its pair of left-handed aces, sophomore Noah Dent (7-3, 1.96 ERA) and senior Clint Ross (6-2, 1.78 ERA).
The Cardinals also improved with the addition of sophomore transfer Luke Orona. Orona, who has played infield, outfield and pitched in relief for SCCS this year, bats in the critical three-hole. He is batting .278 with 10 RBI’s and leads the team in triples with two.
“We knew we were going to be good,” Moss said. “When Luke joined we thought we had a shot at being really good.”
With the playoffs starting today against Newbury Park Adventist, the Cardinals have made good on Moss’s expectations. Winners of 10 straight, their record stands at 15-6; the team won its third consecutive Heritage League crown.
As far as the playoffs go, the Cardinals are ranked No. 2 in the latest CIF Division VII poll. What’s more important is that they are battle tested. They have faced tough pitching, as tough as they will face between now and the CIF finals.
Moss saw to that.
“Was it good to play a schedule that tough? I say yes,” Moss said. “We had to see where we were. We have to be battle tested. I told the guys, ‘Don’t worry about your stats or wins and losses. The only question is are you getting better every game?”
Since league play began, the Cardinals batting has improved from a team average of .280 to .363. Dent leads the team with a .478 average. Sophomore Joe Sparks is hitting. 457 and freshman Josh Sparks is hitting .476. Sophomore Logan Eagle (.400), senior Dayton Muxlow (.388) and Ross (.377) are also swinging the bat well at the right time of the year.
How all of that translates to postseason success remains to be seen. In the playoffs, one hot pitcher can be enough to derail even the most dominant offense. But this may be where SCCS enjoys its most significant advantage.
Every playoff team carries one ace pitcher, but few carry two. In Dent and Ross, SCCS has the arms to shut down any offense on any given day. Unlike most of the best teams in Division VII, the Cardinals lose nothing when the next guy takes his turn to start.
In other words, they can win with offense, but they can also win with pitching.
And that is how you win championships.