BASEBALL PREVIEW 2015: Boasting 7 scholarship players, it’s only fitting one of the state’s best teams is at College Park
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
Jeff Mitchell leans against the dugout fence as the sun shines down on an unusually warm President’s Day afternoon in Pleasant Hill.
The College Park High baseball diamond is reflected in Mitchell’s sunglasses as the Falcons’ starting centerfielder begins his story. This story is centered around six boys who began playing travel baseball together when they were 8 and 9 years old. Mitchell was one of those, and his tale — which he recounts as though it might have happened merely a few weeks ago — is actually one from their time together as 10-year olds.
His story starts with the Pleasant Hill Condors playing up an age group in an 11-under tournament. “We were down 10-0 in the fourth or fifth inning,” Mitchell recalls, slightly shaking his head. “In the last inning, our coaches rallied us together and we ended up coming back and scoring 12 runs to win the game.
“We came back and won that game and were like ‘Wow, we’re a team from Pleasant Hill and we don’t know anything really. We’re the underdogs, but we can play like this and we can do it.’ That for me was when it really started, and after that it was just on.”
Two years after that, six boys became seven. All of them ended up at College Park. Three years and one North Coast Section championship later, this will be the year when Mitchell, Noah Burnham, Willie MacIver, Chris Brown, Nick Oar, Trevor Larnach and Joe Demers find out how they’ll tell the final chapter of their time as teammates.
It has the potential to produce the best story yet.
When the Falcons begin their regular season on March 3 at Liberty, they’ll be doing so as SportStars’ top-ranked NorCal team and, more than likely, among Cal-Hi Sports’ top five in the state overall. They’ll be playing a schedule that will allow them to prove worthy of every preseason accolade — including a trip to Cary, N.C., this March to play in the National High School Invitational tournament run by USA Baseball.
“Last year we were sort of the underdogs, though I don’t see how,” said Falcons coach Andy Tarpley, who is in his third year at College Park, but first began coaching the core group of seniors at the club level in the fall of their eighth-grade year. Some he knew even before that. “We had a chip on our shoulder. Now they know they have the target on their back and they’re embracing it.”
For Tarpley, every day at practice must seem like a kid-in-a-candy-store experience. The original group of seven players have all signed letters of intent to Division I colleges, including both his starting pitchers.
His starting outfield includes Larnach (Oregon State), Mitchell (Cal) and Oar (Stanford). MacIver will play on the left side of the infield but will likely be a catcher when he heads to Washington next season. Tarpley doesn’t need MacIver constantly behind the dish because he also has Burnham, who is signed to play at UC Santa Barbara. Then there’s the two pitchers, the right-handed fireballer DeMers (Washington) and the left-handed paint artist Chris Brown (UC Davis).
“It’s super special to be part of this,” MacIver said. “Every day you see something new out on the field. Trevor (Larnach) will hit eight bombs in a row in batting pracice; Oar is hitting the ball through the scoreboard; Joe (DeMers) just keeps getting better and better. It’s just crazy to watch and to be impressed with something new everyday.”
With all the talent, DeMers is the headliner and everybody knows it — and seems at peace with it.
“He’s Big Joe and we’re all a bunch of Little Joes,” Brown says with a grin.
DeMers begins his fourth season of varsity and is coming off of junior year in which he went 12-2 with a 0.62 ERA while also hiting .371 and leading the team with 32 RBI. The fact that none of the college-level talents on the team feel threatened by his slightly-elevated stature speaks to the deep bond they’ve created playing together over the last eight years, and also to the type of person DeMers is.
“When I was 12 years old and trying to integrate into this group I was a little intimidated,” Oar said. “Because, it was Joe DeMers, and geez, he’s ridiculous. But he was really humble and welcomed me with open arms and asked me to play catch. It would be very easy for him to be the guy who said ‘Who is this kid trying to be in our group?” But no, he’s better than that. He’s a better kid than that and it’s one of the things that I really respect him for.”
DeMers leads with simply his presence. He’s not going to be outspoken and brash. He wants to show up, have fun and win ball games. And with his level of talent, just showing up is a good start.
“He never stops surprising me,” Tarpley said before instantly breaking into a story about the team’s first scrimmage of this season, which they played at Serra-San Mateo just a few days earlier. “Here we are in our first scrimmage of the year, on the road at a tough opponent, seeing our first live game action in months. They have a left-handed guy on the hill and (Joe) comes to us coaches and says ‘I think I’m going to start the year off with an (opposite field) bomb.’
“Sure enough, he looked at one strike and then hit the next one over the opposite field fence. We were just laughing.”
It was the first scrimmage DeMers has been a part of at College Park since at least his freshman year. Each of the past two years, he was still playing varsity basketball in late February. Larnach, MacIver and Mitchell all played basketball as well, but along with DeMers chose not to prior to their final baseball season. Instead, they committed to offseason baseball workouts.
Brown, who because of DeMers’ pitching stature, can often be overlooked on the hill, also committed to an offseason program and added close to 15 pounds. The results have given the pitcher who went 11-1 with a 0.78 ERA a season ago a “little more oomph behind the ball,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mitchell is excited to start the season healthy after being plagued by a hamstring injury last season. Everything appears in place, and nobody wants to be the one taking his opportunity for granted.
After as many as eight years together, they aren’t just playing to win a national tournament or add an NCS Div. I title to the Div. II crown of a year ago. At this point, they’re playing for each other — wherever that leads.
“It’s a privilege to play with these guys,” Larnach said. “They’re basically my family. I grew up with these guys. I love ‘em to death.”