Bullish On El Toro

Pitching has the Chargers near top of rankings

LAKE FOREST, CALIF.—Connie Mack said pitching is 70 percent of baseball.

Mickey Rivers said pitching is 80 percent of baseball. "And," Rivers added, "the other half is hitting and fielding."

Whatever it is, El Toro High (Lake Forest, Calif.) has 100 percent of its pitching back from last year's team that went 25-7 and won the Division II championship in the baseball-rich California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section.

Chad Thompson (Photo by Larry Goren)
The Bulls rank No. 2 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association preseason poll. Among the returnees on the hill is Chad Thompson, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound senior righthander who signed with Arizona State. Thompson in 2008 was 12-3, 1.28 with 121 strikeouts in 93 innings.

Tyler Ziegler, a senior 5-foot-9 lefthander, was 6-2, 2.14. T.J. Kendzora, a 6-foot-2 junior righthander, was 5-1, 2.53.

Add to the staff senior Aaron Wirsch, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound lefthander who is on the comeback trail. Wirsch was 10-2, 2.47 as a sophomore in 2007, but did not pitch last year because of a bone chip in his left elbow. He signed with San Diego, and El Toro coach Mike Gonzales said Wirsch has completely recovered.

Gonzales also assessed his pitchers.

On Thompson, Gonzales said: "A great fastball, of course. But he's also a split-finger, changeup guy."

Ziegler: "He throws three pitches. Fastball, change and a curve, and he'll throw them any time in the count."

Wirsch: "A very good fastball, a curve that comes at you at a different plane than most curveballs, with a more-loopy look to it, and a really good changeup."

Kendzora: "Good stuff and good command, but we don't know how much he'll pitch now, with Wirsch now in the mix."

They're Back

Gonzales can look beyond the mound and see a large group of returnees elsewhere. When El Toro took the field at Dodger Stadium last June to beat Redlands (Calif.) East Valley High, 7-0, in the championship game, only three of the Chargers' starting nine were seniors.

Nolan Arenado (Photo by Stacy Jo Grant)
Shortstop Nolan Arenado, now a senior, batted a team-high .456 last year with four home runs, 11 doubles and 32 RBIs in 32 games. He struck out only six times in 120 plate appearances.

"Maybe I'm biased," Gonzales said, "but I think Nolan's the best player in Orange County, and maybe one of the best in California and maybe in the country, too. He's got great hands, great feet and a great arm. And on the mound he can go 90 mph, so we're trying to get him ready to close as well."

Senior first baseman/outfielder Dillon Penprase batted leadoff for the Chargers last year, when he hit .343 with 32 runs scored. Third baseman Trevor Jensen, who will bat fourth behind Arenado, hit .361 with 22 RBIs in 2008 as a junior. Senior outfielder Andrew Wellman batted .303 last season, and senior catcher Garrett Andersen was a defensive stalwart last year while contributing 24 hits with a pair of home runs.

Gonzales knows the talent is there. But, like any team coming off of a hugely successful year, there are concerns.

"There's always the fear of guys getting complacent," said Gonzales, going into his ninth year as El Toro's head coach. "We don't want guys forgetting what it took to do what they did last year. Fortunately, we have a lot of kids who are seniors, so they've been through it and they have a good idea of what it takes to win it all."

Thompson admits that he and his teammates know that pressure is on them.

"But," he said, "we know we can do what we did last year, and hopefully it will all work out.

"The advantage we have, once we get into those tight, pressure situations, is we should be able to handle it a lot easier. That shouldn't be new to us."

Tournament Tests

The pressure will start early.

El Toro is in the Loara Tournament, annually one of the best season-opening tournaments in Southern California. The Loara Tournament, which begins March 6, features a deep 32-team field that includes Wilson High (Long Beach), which was 27-6 last year and the Southern Section Division I runner-up; Vista Murrieta High (Murrieta, Calif.), 23-6 in 2008; and Cypress (Calif.) High, a Southern Section Division II semifinalist last year.

However, the tournament that draws most of the attention in Southern California, and nationally, is the Anderson Bat National Classic. After 20 years the National Classic has had six teams that went on to be crowned national champion. El Toro is in it this year, as is Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.), which was 33-0 last year, and three teams that won Southern Section titles in 2008—El Toro, Northview (Covina, Calif.) and Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks, Calif.).

"It's a big honor to be in that tournament," said Thompson, the Southern Section D-II player of the year in 2008. "Hopefully, we'll have a good run in it."

Gonzales said getting invited to the National Classic has long been a goal of the El Toro program.

"We're honored and extremely excited to be part of it," Gonzales said. "We've all read about it for so many years, and now we have the opportunity to be in it. The kids are stoked and excited."

There will be scouts a-plenty at the National Classic, and Thompson will be watched closely. He has that ASU scholarship, but Thompson is interested in going pro right away.

"It all depends," he said, "on where I'm drafted and with which team. I'm hoping to sign right out of high school."

Lake Forest, where El Toro is located, is a community in the southern portion of Orange County that has produced a galaxy of baseball stars going back to Walter Johnson and continuing through Bert Blyleven, Gary Carter, Jeff Kent and Trevor Hoffman, and on to Garrett Atkins, Bobby Crosby, Ryan Garko, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. A scratch golfer named Tiger Woods is another Orange County product.

This year's El Toro baseball team just might have a few players who will continue the rich tradition of athletic excellence coming out of Orange County. And maybe the Chargers can bring a national championship back to Southern California.

Steve Fryer covers high school sportsfor the Orange County Register.