Since taking over as the head coach of the Paso Robles High baseball team in 1999, Derek Stroud has had plenty of players come through his program.
To Stroud, though, Thomas Bernal stood out among them all when it came to work ethic and leadership.
“Coaching-wise, he definitely is the best player I’ve ever coached here,” Stroud said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Bernal, The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year, batted .432 this season (fourth in the PAC 7) with 27 RBI (third) and four home runs (third), all team highs. His 23 walks, as well as his .554 on-base percentage, were both league bests.
A 6-foot-1 shortstop selected as the PAC 7’s MVP, Bernal led Paso Robles to its second league championship in three years.
The Bearcats went 13-5 in PAC 7 play (17-12 overall) and were the only league member to play in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs, where they lost 9-1 to Chaminade of West Hills (25-7), which had been ranked No. 2 in the division earlier in the year.
As a pitcher, Bernal went 7-1 with four saves, a 3.75 ERA through 61 2/3 innings, also all team highs.
Despite all of Bernal’s production, though, Stroud and other coaches may be more likely to remember him in less calculable terms.
“If you take him out (of the Bearcats’ lineup and rotation),” former Atascadero coach Dan Butz said, “they’re not a first-place team.”
Perhaps no moment epitomized Bernal’s importance to his teammates more than one that took place with the league title on the line May 5 against Arroyo Grande.
After taking a bad-hop groundball to the face early in the game, Bernal suffered two broken bones in his cheek. Following a brief stay in the dugout, he was cleared to return to the field and pitched the final inning to pick up the championship-clinching save.
Having already secured the league title, he rested for the regular-season finale to lessen the swelling. During a four-year varsity career, it was the only game in which Bernal didn’t play.
“He showed me more guts than anybody in this entire league,” Nipomo coach John Stevens said.
Leading by example lifted younger players
Bernal being relied upon significantly as a sophomore during the Bearcats’ 2008 league-championship run paid vicarious dividends this year, Stroud said, given that only six of Paso Robles’ 18 players were seniors.
“He knew what it was like to play a key role (as an underclassman),” Stroud said. “He was able to give the guys a sense of, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Still, having so much inexperience entering the season somewhat muted Paso Robles’ hopes for another league title. On April 23, Paso Robles was swept in a doubleheader by Pioneer Valley, scoring a combined four runs on the day. After the Bearcats drove home that night, Stroud said, Bernal promptly went to get in some batting practice, which wasn’t unnoticed by the rest of the team.
“He knew the pulse of the ballclub,” Stroud said. “If it meant talking to individuals, he could do that. If it meant just playing along and not saying anything, he could do that. He was able to read the team really well and push the buttons the team needed.
“He took a lot of pressure off other guys.”
After the Pioneer Valley losses, the Bearcats came into their final three-game sets of the season, against San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande, knowing they’d need to take at least five of the games to win the league title. Right on cue, they won five straight.
“(Stroud) said, ‘If someone said you would have a chance to win the championship at the beginning of the year, there’s no way you would’ve thought that,’” Bernal remembered.
“And I felt the same way,” Bernal explained. “In summer ball, we just didn’t look very good. We were kind of scrappy; no one had a set position.”
Over time, Stroud said, Bernal’s presence proved to be the stabilizing force the Bearcats needed.
“Sometimes, when kids get older, they’re not as eager to learn or improve,” Stroud said. “I never saw that with Tom. Throughout his whole career, he kept grinding it out to improve himself and to be the best baseball player he could be. From a coach’s standpoint, when your best player does that, that’s the ultimate example you can give to your team.”
Hoping to make an impact at Kentucky
In May, Bernal verbally committed to continue his career at Kentucky, he said, as a recruited walk-on.
“I just feel like I can’t go a day without doing something with baseball,” said Bernal, who spent time this past offseason learning under Houston Astros batting coach Sean Berry, who maintains a home in Paso Robles. “Every day, you can learn something, and someone can tell you something (about the game) you’ve never heard before.”
Lexington, Ky., is a day’s drive from his original hometown of Hershey, Pa., where he lived until moving to the Central Coast late in the eighth grade.
The Wildcats will look to use Bernal as an all-around infielder, he said, and he has already gotten multiple innings of work at every infield spot this summer training with the Central Coast Baseball Academy Wolfpack.
Kentucky, which has had six winning seasons in a row, saw 12 current, former or future players taken in the most recent Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
“I’m going to have to work the hardest I’ve ever worked,” Bernal said of the opportunity.
That shouldn’t be a problem, in Stroud’s eyes.
“I think he’s going to wear on those coaches and his teammates at Kentucky,” Stroud said. “They’re going to say, ‘Geez — this kid just outworks everybody.’ ”