With A Dugout Full Of Returning Talent, Valley Christian-San Jose Prepares For A Year Of New Challenges As It Chases A CCS Open Division Repeat •
At 53, John Diatte is not nearly old enough to have come from the time of Satchel Paige. Maybe because he’s been guiding the baseball program at Valley Christian High School in San Jose for nearly three decades, it just seems that way.
In that time, the Warriors’ manager, now entering his 29th season, has seen enough that he’s well familiar with some the most famous words ever uttered by Paige, the Hall of Fame pitcher noted for being a legend in the Negro Leagues, for making his major league debut at 41 and appearing for the A’s (Kansas City version) at age 58.
Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
Or, in the case of Diatte’s team, some schools.
St.Francis-Mountain View. Bellarmine-San Jose, Sacred Heart Cathedral-S.F., Serra-San Mateo.
“You know,” Diatte said. “It never gets any easier.”
Sure doesn’t, especially in the West Catholic Athletic League. Not when you’re the preseason No. 1 pick in Northern California. Not when you are the defending Open Division champion in the Central Coast Section. Not when you’re riding the wave of three one-run playoff victories that catapulted you to that title as a No. 13 seed.
Not even when you return darn near everybody from that glorious experience.
“We know that we have all the talent to be just as good, if not better,” pitcher Patrick Wicklander said. “We have guys that know how to win. Now, it’s just a matter of recapturing that form.”
That’s just it, though. Some forms — kind of like Paige himself — are unique to themselves. Even Diatte acknowledges that the 2018 Warriors must create their own personality, their own winning formula, separate from last year’s group that stumbled through the first half of the season (8-9-1) only to win 14 of its final 16 in the second half.
“It was kind of the perfect storm,” Diatte says. “A lot of things came together, a lot of guys stepped up. … It’s a fine line before just leaning on that and this year. Every year is new. There’s a feeling-out process. Are they overconfident? You want them to be confident and lean on what they did last year, but not get overconfident. You don’t want to put the fear of the world into them about the same stuff not happening or let any doubt creep in. So it’s a fine balance. We’ve had good practices and bad practices so far, and we’re trying to keep a balance of where our expectations are based on that.”
That said, the expectations have rarely been higher. And few teams are as equipped to meet them like the Warriors. Valley Christian returns half of their title team, including three of the section’s top pitchers, the league’s leading hitter and three others who finished in the top 20.
“We’re very excited,” catcher Ryan Belluomini said. “Our pitching staff should be at least as good, if not better. But we keep it in the back of our minds that this season is a new one. But we know if we come together and play like we’re capable, we should win a lot of games.”
It starts with the battery, which given the Warriors’ power and depth, is always Grade A. All four starters top 85 mph, a magic marker in high school ball, and two of them can hit the 90s on a good day.
They all tend to keep the ball off the fat part of the bat. The Spartans posted a 2.04 ERA in 32 games and 246.2 innings last season. And Belluomini is sneaky good behind the plate.
“I bet he’ll get a Division II scholarship,” Diatte says.
Several of the Warriors already are going Division I. As anything with this team, that category also starts with the pitching.
Wicklander is bound for Arkansas. The lefty throws between 86 and 93 mph “depending on the day,” Diatte says. He also can command a change-up, and Diatte says Wicklander’s slider is “getting better and better.”
“I’ve been working hard on weights to add strength to my arm,” he says. “I want to be stronger longer.”
A year ago, he went 8-1 with a 1.92 ERA while striking out 94 in 80.1 innings.
“His fastball is a plus-fastball, and he can just keep throwing that when he has a good day,” Diatte says. “But he knows how to pitch and use his other stuff.”
Backing him is junior right-hander William Kempner, who threw four innings in Valley Christian’s 4-3 victory over Serra in the title game. He throws between 88-91 mph and has committed to Gonzaga.
Another starter, sophomore Eddie Park, was the section’s Freshman Pitcher of the Year after posting three wins and a 0.75 ERA in 18.2 innings. If that’s not enough, he wields some pretty mean aluminum, too. Park hit .337 and collected 29 hits in 32 games in his freshman year, scoring 14 runs and driving in 10.
Coming next to the pitching staff: Freshman Jonathan Cymrot, a member of the U.S. National Development team since he was 11 years old.
“He’s gonna be a special kid,” Diatte says.
It’s an extra special staff, one that should be able to withstand the season-ending knee injury to senior Nate Medrano (4-2, 2.78, 3 saves, 48 strikeouts in 45.1 innings). The Warriors allowed only eight runs in four playoff games a season ago and gave up 24 in their final 16-game run.
Adding to the talent and experience is Belluomini, who has had an entire summer and fall to work on his throwing and defense. Offensively, he produced a slash line of .344/.388/.431
He’s part of a lineup that should produce plenty of runs. Several players return from the lineup that got hot down the stretch and produced 71 runs in that final 16-game run.
Overall, the Warriors hit .288 as a team.
Junior infielder Nick Marinconz hit .414 and collected 48 hits in 131 plate appearances as a sophomore, leading the WCAL in both categories. He tied for the league lead with 12 doubles.
“Nick has a really good feel for hitting,” Diatte says. “He’s a doubles hitter, goes gap to gap. He’s a plus-runner, too.”
Junior Coleman Brigman is another big bat. He collected 34 hits in 33 games, produced a .360 average and a .460 slugging percentage. His 19 runs scored were second only to Marinconz among the offensive leaders.
“He has a great feel, too, especially for what the pitcher is going to throw next,” Diatte says. “He always seems to be able to get that key hit when we need it.”
Big things also are expected from Dawson Brigman, Coleman’s older brother. He struggled a year ago, hitting .211 in 32 games, but Diatte says the tools are there and that Dawson brings a fantastic glove to the infield.
In other words, as Belluomini said, “all the pieces are there.”
Now, it’s simply time to see how well those pieces fall into place. With WCAL rivals Serra, Bellarmine, Sacred Heart and St. Francis nipping at their heals, the Warriors wear their crown confidently but not carelessly.
“It’s always a battle,” Wicklander said. “It will be again.”
Story By JAMES G. KANE | Photos By SAMUEL STRINGER