CARY, N.C. — USA Baseball’s National High School Invitational is getting a bit predictable. In most cases, that wouldn’t be the ideal scenario. However, for the players and coaches of Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High, that’s exactly how they like it—even if becoming the first team to win the event in three consecutive years wasn’t something they just walked in and expected to happen.
“You know, it’s still unbelievable,” said Orange Lutheran coach Eric Borba, still wet and sticky from both the humid North Carolina air and his third Gatorade shower on the final day of USA Baseball’s annual high school tournament. “The odds of coming back here and winning this thing again, it was almost a joke.
“We know we’re good enough to do it, but really, the odds of winning this thing three times in a row are slim to none. And somehow, these guys found a way to rally together and defeat the odds.”
Since the first year of the NHSI in 2012, California teams have dominated the competition, winning seven of eight championships with 14 of the 16 championship game participants hailing from the state.
“The baseball in Southern California is deeper than anybody can talk about,” Borba said. “I don’t mean any disrespect towards any teams across the country, but these guys play a lot—with the weather, obviously we can play year-round, but the quality of the competition and the depth of the teams out there is unbelievable. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that we see California teams in the final. But it’s a tribute to how hard the guys work out there and the number of quality players we have in Southern California.”
The 2019 edition of the event saw Orange Lutheran beat fellow Southern California powerhouse, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), 6-2, to make history and surpass Mater Dei’s back-to-back championship mark from 2012 and 2013.
“I just like how you said ‘first team in history,’” said Orange Lutheran righthander Evan Adolphus after being asked about the trifecta following the victory.
“It feels great.”
Adolphus, a member of the 2019 class who is committed to Cal State Fullerton, was tabbed the starter for the championship game and rose to the occasion with aplomb, throwing 6.2 innings on 105 pitches and allowing just a pair of runs. Adolphus came out of the gate with a fastball that touched 92 mph early and settled into the 87-90 mph range throughout the outing, pairing it with a devastating, low-80s changeup that kept hitters off-balance and helped him retire the first 13 Harvard-Westlake hitters he faced.
“I think he has one of the best changeups I’ve ever coached,” Borba said.
If Orange Lutheran had allowed more than three runs in the previous three games leading up to the championship, there’s a chance Adolphus wouldn’t have been in the position to shine in the championship game. He was available in relief if necessary throughout the tournament, but quality of the Lancer pitching performances during the week meant he was fresh on Sunday afternoon.
The key to the NHSI is always pitching depth. And this year—like last year and like the year before that—Orange Lutheran had pitching depth and then some. Righthander Max Rajcic threw six dominant innings in a Game 1 win against South Forsyth (Cumming, Ga.). RHP Christian Rodriguez threw a complete game in a 2-1 win over Desert Oasis (Las Vegas) in Game 2, and RHP Jonathan Guzman threw six shutout innings in a blowout, 12-1 win against Monsignore Pace (Miami) in Game 3.
“Sometimes it’s hard as a coach, you try to get everybody in there and you can’t get them as many innings as you want,” Borba said. “But knowing we have opportunities like this where you have a lot of confidence in a guy who can go out and give you 6.2 against an opponent like Harvard-Westlake and just really dominate the whole game. It’s pretty awesome, I just thought it was a real gutsy performance by him.
“Having that in the back pocket going into the championship game—we knew we had an advantage going into it.”
Orange Lutheran also had the advantage of plugging in outfielder Caden Connor into the two-hole of the lineup. Connor was named the MVP of the tournament after going 7-for-10 with two doubles, five singles, five walks and zero strikeouts over 15 plate appearances.
“Through my mind I’m just like, go do my thing,” Connor said about playing in the championship. “Just take a breather, be calm. My first at-bat I was a little nervous, I didn’t pull the trigger much and then I just went up there and did my thing. Just glad I found holes, got on base, scored runs for my team.”
In the championship game, Connor was as reliable as a coach could hope for, going a perfect 3-for-3 with a double and a pair of singles, tacking on a walk and also scoring four of the team’s six runs.
“I can’t say enough about this kid,” Borba said. “I have to believe he’s one of the best uncommitted players in the country and how nobody wants a guy like this on their team yet is pretty surprising—because I wish he could play for me for another four years. He just does everything you want. And he comes up big in the biggest times.”
Orange Lutheran as a program seems to come up in those clutch moments. They have in each of the past three years. And until something changes, they’ll continue to be the favorites on one of the biggest stages in high school baseball.
“You walk (into USA Baseball’s Complex) on the walk of champions,” Borba said, referring to the path to the fields that highlights each of the previous NHSI victors. “And to see Orange Lutheran, Orange Lutheran and to think next year it’s going to have three of them—it’s pretty awesome.
“You get the chills every time you walk into this place as it is and then you see your name up there and everyone is going to see that as long as this tournament is going on, It’s pretty cool.”