One of the most promising high school baseball players in San Luis Obispo County is one who hasn’t ever played high school baseball.
Until now, that is.
In November, Nipomo senior Jeff McNeil signed a National Letter of Intent to continue his career at Cal State Northridge. That McNeil would become a high-level college athlete wasn’t surprising, as the 6-foot-1, 165-pounder had spent his first three prep years starring for the Titans in basketball and golf.
But he only recently took up baseball as something of a side pursuit on the summer club circuit, and this past year significantly impressed scouts while playing for the California Wahoos. With his future already in hand, McNeil will be making his interscholastic debut on the diamond as a senior shortstop.
“He’s very, very good,” Titans coach John Stevens said. “It’s kind of startling how good he is, actually.”
It could be argued that McNeil’s unique story as the county’s lone Division I signee thus far demonstrates the depth of the PAC 7, as Nipomo, which went 6-20 overall and a last-place 1-17 in league play last year, is among several teams looking up at last year’s league champion, San Luis Obispo (which went 23-6 overall and 15-3 against the PAC 7 in 2009).
Tigers look to defend PAC 7 supremacy
San Luis Obispo appears to be in good position to follow up on its banner 2009 campaign, in which David Murillo starred as a junior pitcher, going 8-1, pacing the PAC 7 with a 1.21 ERA and holding the opposition to a .188 batting average in 692⁄3 innings. Fellow senior-to-be Jonathan Brenneman also was strong on the mound, amassing a 1.99 ERA in 312⁄3 innings.
“I believe they’d have to be the favorites early on,” Paso Robles coach Derek Stroud said of the Tigers, who graduated much of their offense but did feature shortstop Scott Shields, who batted .366 as a junior.
Runner-up Atascadero (16-12, 11-7 in 2009), meanwhile, returns arguably the area’s most polished talent in senior infielder and Point Loma Nazarene signee Bryce Cherry, who led the league with a .500 batting average and 38 RBI, and also collected a school-record 18 doubles on his way to garnering county player of the year honors a season ago.
Cherry also played for the Wahoos over the summer to stay sharp, Atascadero coach Dan Butz said.
“I think he’s gained confidence,” Butz said of the 5-11 Cherry, who recently was named an Under Armour preseason All-American.
The Greyhounds also bring back seven other seniors, including top pitcher Kenny Block (who had a 2.86 ERA in 561⁄3 innings) and infielder Brent Poulin (who batted .348 with 19 RBI).
“Certainly, having (so many crucial) players coming back is huge,” Butz said. “It’s so key when you’re playing three games a week to have that kind of quality depth.”
Third-place Paso Robles (14-14, 10-8 in 2009), meanwhile, will be led by senior Thomas Bernal, who pitched 50 innings last year for a 4.90 ERA, and also stood out at the plate, batting .354 while racking up team highs in runs (27), hits (28), doubles (eight) and home runs (three). Bernal, a four-year varsity player, has fully recovered from a shoulder injury suffered during football season.
“He had a really good offseason as far as getting himself healthy,” Stroud said.
Infielder Trevor Lasley, another four-year varsity contributor, is also back for Paso Robles after batting .327 as a junior. Paso Robles will additionally be looking for heavy contributions from outfielders Mac Stuart (who drove in a team-best 20 runs in 2009) and the speedy Elias Stokes — each of whom started as freshmen.
Fifth-place Arroyo Grande (12-15, 9-9 in 2009) has welcomed back head coach Brad Lachemann, who coached the Eagles from 1996 to 2004 before stepping down.
Arroyo Grande returns a wealth of experience from last year’s young group, including infielders Eric Simon (who batted .449 with 30 RBI and a league-high six homers as a junior), Kyle Raubinger (.405, 24 RBI, four home runs as a sophomore) and Gabe Hernandez (.364 as a junior).
Right-hander Jesse Yancosek, who showed flashes of brilliance in spot duty as a sophomore last year, figures to lead the pitching rotation.
Morro Bay, Templeton seek LPL improvement
In the Los Padres League, both Morro Bay (which finished fifth in 2009 at 7-15-1 overall and 4-8 in-league) and Templeton (last at 4-17, 1-11) are looking to climb back into the top four, which in 2009 consisted of Santa Ynez (22-4, 10-2), Cabrillo (17-11, 9-3), St. Joseph (15-10, 9-3) and Lompoc (17-11, 8-4).
Tyler Duclos, who batted a team-best .379 last year, figures to headline the Pirates’ five returning players, while fellow senior infielder Tyler Lee (.317) should also lead. Cody Brindley, who threw 271⁄3 innings had a 3.84 ERA as a junior, is back to helm a young pitching staff.
Last year for Templeton, then-juniors Chad McGill (who hit .367) and Daniel Wheeler (.308 with a team-high five stolen bases) were among the standouts.
Small schools poised for playoff campaigns
Mission Prep, which went 14-8 in 2009, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Central Section Division V playoffs, returns nine players with varsity experience, including Clay Mead (who batted .370), Art Lane (.316) and Ray Hurwitz (.302).
The Royals’ young pitching staff will likely be anchored by senior Elijah Balaban (who held opponents to a .261 batting average as a junior in 152⁄3 innings) and junior Stephen Fleming (3.89 ERA in nine innings).
Coast Union (7-11 in 2009) brings back six senior starters. Jake Machado, Jaime Torres, Clinton Almekinder and Trevor Cook are vying for starts on the mound for the Broncos, while burly sophomore Andy Gordon has emerged as a potent power hitter.
Perhaps one of the most underrated players in the area is North County Christian senior pitcher Josh Feld, a three-time all-Coast Valley League pick.
As a sophomore, Feld pitched the first perfect game in Crusaders history, and as a junior, the 6-1, 195-pounder was named the CVL MVP after batting .515 and leading Division VII of the Southern Section with 43 RBI.
Taylor Brard (who batted .453 last season) and Caleb Katches (.444) also were instrumental in claiming the program’s second straight league championship in 2009, as the Crusaders went 17-4 overall and 11-1 in league play.
Shandon was close behind at 11-6 and 9-3, thanks in large part to then-sophomore Tommy Harris (who batted .396 with team bests of 33 RBI and four homers) and senior-to-be Junior Soto (.438).