Armed and Dangerous


Pitching Staff Riding Wave of Confidence

From left, Jackson Rees, Keaton Jones, Chris Paul and Larry Stewart, with catcher Eric Peruzzi calling the pitches, form the nucleus of Laguna’s dominant staff, guided by first year coach Ben Julianel. Photo by Bob Campbell

The high school’s baseball team, it’s pitching staff in particular, embodies confidence. Not in a cocky sense. Although their 11-0 record as of Tuesday might justify such an attitude. Instead, their presence comes from self-assuredness borne out of preparation, skill and the uncanny ability to find a way to win. “We’re a very confident team right now,” said pitcher Keaton Jones.

First year pitching coach Ben Julianel said the Breakers have “it”, an intangible quality that gives the team confidence and has fueled their school record run. “When you need a big hit, you’re going to get it,” he said.

A former pro pitcher, Julianel got his master’s in physical education, hoping some day he would land a college-level coaching position when his playing days were over. But job openings dried up with the economy, and so he started his own business.

A phone call from, Dan McInerny, another former pro and father of third baseman Robbie, led to a meeting with head coach Jeff Sears to discuss the team’s need for a pitching coach. The demands of a new baby and business left Julianel reluctant to commit, but he couldn’t refuse the offer. “[McInerny] and coach Sears cornered me,” he said with a smile.

The position has since grown well beyond his original two-hour weekly commitment, but Julianel doesn’t seem to mind. Yet for all the experience and knowledge he brings to the field, the humble coach is reluctant to take any of the credit for the team’s success on the mound. “Honestly, it’s not like I bring a lot of value,” he said. “These kids are good. It’s just a matter of me maybe encouraging them or just helping them stay on track.”

“He is an unbelievable competitor, and it shows in our pitching staff,” Sears said in disagreement.

Julianel’s influence began when Jones, slated to be a starter, suffered an early season injury that limited his innings.  So Julianel and Sears decided to put the dominant senior in the closing roll, where he could work his way back to full strength in one-inning bursts.

As of last Monday, Jones had four saves in as many opportunities, giving up only two hits in 3.2 innings. His ERA is non-existent and the nasty curve his new coach taught him in the off-season is nearly unhittable. “He comes into the game to close, and it’s just lights out,” said Julianel.

By the time Jones gets a crack at opposing hitters, they already have been demoralized by a trio of starters that together have struck out 52 in only 51.2 innings through Monday’s game. Senior Chris Paul and a pair of sophomores, Larry Stewart and Jackson Rees, are a combined 9-0 with a 0.80 ERA, and teams are hitting a miniscule .190 when they are on the mound.

“To be honest, I’m a little surprised that we’re 9-0,” said Paul after last Friday’s contest, “but we’re just going to feed off that and keep things going and win more games.”

Paul, a record-setting all-CIF wide receiver on the football field, is putting up numbers on the diamond that must have his future coaches at UC Santa Barbara smiling. Aside from being the team’s most dominant force at the plate, Paul already has two complete games and one shutout in three starts. His 33 strikeouts rank him second in the county according to OCVarsity, and like Jones, he has yet to give up a run as of Monday.

Coming into this year, Stewart, son of Laguna volleyball coach Lance, didn’t expect to be a starter. But after showing his considerable skills early, “[The coaches] just told me I’d be getting the ball a little bit more this season,” said the nonchalant rookie.

Stewart hopes age and the weight room will put a little more speed on his fastball. Until then, he is a finesse pitcher who knows the value of a good catcher. “He knows all of us like the back of his hand,” Stewart said of senior Erik Peruzzi, who Sears gives wide latitude to call the pitches for the team’s star-studded cast of hurlers.

The 6’3” Rees looks, throws and talks beyond his years. Last season as a freshman, he struck out 52 in 40 innings for the JV team, and the experience gave him a healthy dose of confidence. He has a four-pitch repertoire, but the split-finger fastball is his favorite. “It’s really nasty,” he said.

Rees, who earned his fourth victory with a four-inning stint last Monday against Godinez, credits Sears with keeping he and his fellow starters prepared. Sears scouts each opponent before the game and goes over hitters’ tendencies with his staff. “Coach Sears is really on top of that,” said Rees.

Around the dugout during games, it’s hard not to notice this team’s chemistry. Whether it’s a cause or effect of winning, they are loose and having fun. And even when, or if, they lose that first game, you get the feeling the experience won’t even faze them. “If it happens it happens,” said Paul. “Every day’s a new day.”



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