The Cambrian

Youth Baseball: The ‘other Broncos’ fill the gap before high school

Shortstop Gehrig Kniffen makes contact in a game against Los Osos on Saturday, May 15.
Shortstop Gehrig Kniffen makes contact in a game against Los Osos on Saturday, May 15. PHOTO BY JOHN FITZRANDOLPH

There’s a new team of Broncos in town. Same red and gold colors, same gloves and baseballs, same playing field. Same sound of baseballs smacked by aluminum bats.

But these Broncos are 13 and 14 years of age, about to enter high school but not quite there. Co-coaches Steve Kniffen and Steve Spisak say they put this team together to close “the gap.”

In Cambria, a solid volleyball development program is in place, ditto basketball and soccer. When it comes to baseball development, there’s always “the gap” between Little League and high school, a point in time during which kids should be learning skills and developing

passion for the game— to be ready for Coast Union Bronco baseball.

Kniffen and Spisak’s 13-and 14- year-old Bronco team—starting this year for the first time—play in a six-team league with Atascadero.

“We wondered if maybe we were too far in over our heads, but the kids kept showing up at practice and playing hard,” Kniffen explains.

Joining Kniffen and Spisak is assistant coach John Raethke, who coaches third base during the games. Kniffen lists four players on his Broncos team that will likely compete for spots on the Coast Union Broncos come next spring: Grant Magnuson, J.Q. Raethke, Emine Godinez and Tommy Howard. Sergio Mendoza is also a candidate to play with the high school team.

“All five of these kids are on the honor roll,” Kniffen proudly adds.

As to his co-coach, Spisak, Kniffen says, “Steve’s a little bit more of a grinder, more than me, but the kids are at a level that allows them to handle that [grinding] .…”

Kniffen’s more relaxed style meshes well with Spisak because, as Kniffen says, “These kids want to play so bad they’re starting to digest the coach using the full force of his vocal tones with them.”

Spisak says players are learning “respect for the game” and learning to respect the ball field (they help with the grounds after the game) as well.

Many of these boys “have had no place to go” if they are interested in baseball, Spisak continues. Many of them “have never played baseball, or haven’t played in several years,” but they are developing into good young talent. “There hasn’t been much passion among young kids in the community for baseball.”

“But these kids have totally responded to our program. Watching them play and practice, they are coming together as a team,” said Spisak.

Kniffen adds, “We have some kids that are really raw, but we won a game against Nipomo recently, 14-12, and those raw guys are the reason we won. They were making contact, and even though they weren’t driving balls into the gap, they were making contact, beating out grounders and not striking out.”

“Center fielder Samir Boutros made a running, diving catch. We’ve put kids in the outfield and that’s where we keep them. Left fielder Sergio Mendoza also made a running, diving catch,” Kniffen reports. “You could just see it open up in their eyes, ‘Oh, I like this game. It’s not basketball or soccer where you are constantly going, but I’m going to get my turn, and I’ll succeed in the moment .…’”

The high school has allowed the young Broncos to use the varsity field for practice and some games, and the Cambria Youth Athletic Association picked up the tab for the team’s insurance needs. “Everybody has been really gracious to us,” Kniffen states.

“This has been a very successful start — we have some real talent here,” Spisak adds.

— John FitzRandolph, special to The Cambrian