In 2006, Laguna’s baseball team won 13 games to tie the single-season school record, a rare bright spot in the struggling program’s 69-year history up to that point. Since then, the Breakers have won no fewer than 14 games in any one season and are a combined 147-74, including a 17-2 mark heading into today’s home game against Estancia.
Part of the reason for the turnaround was Laguna’s ’07 move from the large-school Pacific Coast League to a more competitive Orange Coast League, where the Breakers have won 74 percent of their games to date.
But the main reason was a change in attitude that began with Coach Dave Dopf’s ’06 and ‘07 teams and continued during Jeff Sears’ four-year tenure, which culminated with Laguna’s first ever league championship in ‘11. Mike Bair took over in ‘12, and led his ’13 team to the school’s second league crown.
This year’s squad has a chance to be the best ever. And they’re doing it with dominant pitching, record-setting speed, and a row of hitters that are on pace to break the school mark for team batting average.
The only weakness, if you can call it that, is their defense, which has committed 26 errors through the first 18 games, accounting for 11 unearned runs. But when your offense is averaging almost 10 runs a game, a few unearned runs here and there don’t seem to matter all that much.
With five solid senior starters, three of which are in their third year under Bair’s varsity system, Laguna’s lineup is starting to fire on all cylinders. “I think the kids are understanding more what we want when we approach an at bat,” said Bair. “I feel like we are finally seeing the fruit of that.”
Heading into last Tuesday’s game against Estancia, outfielder Richie Nunis was hitting .485, 88 points higher than last year. And he’s already equaled or exceeded his totals from last season in runs (23), hits (33), RBI (25), doubles (10), triples (1) and homers (2). “I don’t really think about it that much,” Nunis said of his lofty stats. “I just try to help the team the best I can.”
Much of Nunis’ improvement at the plate has come from the right-hander’s ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched, an approach his teammates are starting to pick up on, according to Bair. “Richie’s a very smart hitter. He doesn’t try to do too much,” said Bair. “He’s a huge part of our success this year.”
The Breakers have been scoring at a record pace, averaging 9.9 runs a game. Much of that production is a direct result of their ability to steal bases seemingly at will. The team already has 69 steals in 74 attempts, breaking the ’07 record of 68.
Laguna’s leading larcenist is third-year shortstop Preston GrandPre, who often takes off for second on the first pitch. And no team has been able to catch him so far. His 21 thefts in 21 attempts put him in position to swipe the single season record of 29.
GrandPre is second in CIF Division 4 in steals, and his activity on the base paths is sure to garner a lot of attention from opposing pitchers come post season. “I’m going to try my best to keep doing what I’m doing and steal bases,” said the Cal recruit, who will join fellow teammates Chris Paul (’11) and Robbie McInerny (’13) in Berkeley next season.
Grant Wilhelm has been virtually unhittable this season. He is tied for first in Division 4 with seven wins, and his ERA is a miniscule 1.37. He got the opportunity to pitch against top college bound talent as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays scout team this summer. The experience gave him confidence and added some pop to his fastball. He has 48 Ks in 41 innings of work.
Wilhelm has been equally impressive at the plate. He is second only to Nunis in average (.433), hits (26), RBI (21) and doubles (9). “Even with two strikes, he finds a way to put the ball in play hard,” said Bair.
As the team’s only four-year varsity starter, Steven Harrison’s career numbers are reflective of his consistency and longevity. His 100+ games played are second only to Paul’s 113. His 17 HRs are only three shy of Paul’s career mark of 20. And the stocky first baseman has been hit by pitches an astonishing 36 times, a record he likely will never relinquish.
An injury to his throwing shoulder last season forced Harrison to give up his position behind the plate. This season, Harrison has proven to be a good fielder and reliable target at first base. “He’s really helped us there. He’s done a good job,” said Bair.
Harrison’s shoulder misfortune turned out to be Will McInerny’s big break. In his second season behind the dish, the sophomore has become a top-notch catcher and pitch caller. “He’s underrated in how well he works with our pitchers,” said Bair. “He does just a fantastic job behind the plate.”
McInerny swings a pretty productive bat as well. His .413 average is third on the team. And he can dish it out as well as he can take it, having pitched four victories in four starts with a team low 0.37 ERA.
The Breakers seem to have all the pieces in place to win a third league title and go deep in post season. “We just want to end the year on a good note and come out on top,” said Nunis.
For complete player and teams stats, visit www.maxpreps.com.
Frank Aronoff contributed to this story.