HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—Being ranked No. 1 in the nation is something most would expect from Huntington Beach High School’s surfing team, rather than any other athletic team on the 100-plus-year-old campus that sits a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
But it is the school’s baseball team that is riding a wave of success coming off a CIF-Southern Section Division 1 championship in 2015, to Baseball America’s High School preseason No. 1 ranking for 2016.
It’s been quite a long road to the top for the Oilers. Head coach Benji Medure pointed it out after the win over Newhall Hart in the championship game last year, noting his team had “done something that hadn’t been done in 107 years.”
And now the challenge the Oilers face is to match last year’s CIF title, and do so under a bright spotlight. It’s something they did not handle quite so well at the beginning of last season, when they were ranked No. 1 in Southern California by several publications.
Taking the field to start last season holding the No. 1 ranking, the Oilers lost five of their first seven games.
“Last year the biggest thing is we tried too hard to live up to the expectations,” said Oilers senior shortstop Chad Minato, who has committed to Harvard. “Not so much that we were nervous necessarily, but we felt pressure to live up to where everyone had us. We got caught up too much in the rankings.
“We definitely learned our lesson and are doing our best to try to avoid what happened last year.”
If Medure had his way, he’d prefer his players not talk—over even think—about the No. 1 ranking.
“It’s a huge honor, I’m not going to downplay that,” said Medure, 41, going into this 16th season as Huntington Beach’s head coach. “But going through what we went through last year, experiencing the hardship and the pressure, I think we’re going to be a little more battle-tested. I think we’re going to be ready to handle it.”
Medure can be relatively confident his team will be able to handle the pressure, as five of his players were members of the Little League World Series championship team in 2011.
Hagen Danner, Nick Pratto, Dylan Palmer, Trevor Windisch and Justin Cianca were members of Huntington Beach’s Ocean View Little League team that beat Japan, 2-1, in the championship game in Williamsport, Pa.
In fact, Pratto had the game-winning hit, lining a single to center field with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth and final inning. Palmer had a key hit in the sixth inning as well, and Danner drove in the team’s only other run with a home run earlier in the game.
“Ever since then, me and Hagen and the other guys too, we’ve been under a microscope,” said Pratto, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound lefthander/first baseman who has committed to USC though still a junior. “It really helps you slow the game down and focus on what you need to focus on, and just play the game.”
Having a group of kids that played on national television at the age of 12 is not something Medure takes lightly. He knows it’s a special situation.
“I think it’s a huge advantage for them, handling the pressure, handling the press, handling interviews like this. Being on the big stage is probably old hat to them,” Medure said. “I was telling somebody last year when Hagen was pitching (in USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars) in North Carolina, no offense to North Carolina, but he’s been on a bigger stage and he was a lot younger.
“(Hagen) handles the moment well and they all do. They’re very tough mentally and I think it has a lot to do with that experience. It’s got to make you tough, going through that adversity and pressure as a 12-year-old.”
Not Little League Anymore
Danner, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound righthander who has committed to UCLA, will team with Pratto to make a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the Oilers’ rotation. When Danner is not pitching, he can play any position other than shortstop and second base.
Last year as a sophomore, Danner led the team with seven victories, had a 1.15 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 14 games (10 starts) covering 61 innings.
“I don’t really care about the numbers,” Danner said. “I just want to be as good on the mound as I can be, and win every game. Those are the goals for me.”
Pratto transferred from nearby Mater Dei High School, a private school and athletic powerhouse. Like Danner, Pratto insists he won’t spend a lot of time looking at the stat sheet.
“I try not to get caught up in numbers as much as how I’m feeling about the effort I put forth,” said Pratto, who joined Danner on USA Baseball’s 18U team that won the gold at the 2015 World Cup. “Really just mechanically, how I’m hitting the ball. If it doesn’t land, it doesn’t land, but if I’m hitting it hard, then there’s nothing else I can do. If I’m throwing the ball hard, there’s nothing else I can do.”
It’s a mindset that Medure has emphasized with his players, getting them to focus on the team game.
“We are the anti-stat team,” Medure said. “We keep stats just because we have to, but I don’t look at them. I try not to let the boys look at them. Because things like the hustle numbers are never going to show in the stats. The good at-bats, where you may have been punched out but you made the pitcher throw 11 pitches. Those are the team at-bats, things that go overlooked that really make a team a success.
“And being an older team, a more mature team, we’re so focused on the small parts of a game, breaking it down, trying to win little things throughout the game. These kids are really good at that.”
Medure has plenty of options when making out his lineup for each game. Logan Pouelsen is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior righthander and third baseman. Lefthander/first baseman Cory Moore, a transfer from Yucaipa High, is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior. Mitch Kovary, Matt Geiger, Nate Madole and Kobe Anton also will get time on the mound.
Dominic Abbadessa, Landon Silver, Ben McConnell and J.J. Muratore will share time in the outfield, Windisch and Palmer will be in the infield mix while Danner and Anthony Martinez will have most of the catching duties.
It’s an athletic team that Medure plans to maximize in the field and on the bases.
“We prioritize defense first,” he said. “Defense and pitching, and then baserunning. I think baserunning is overlooked, first to third, reading balls in the dirt, taking a bag on an overthrow, being a good trail baserunner or letting a run score by recording the final out on the base paths. Just overall putting pressure on teams is our big thing because we are fast enough to make someone make a rushed throw. For us the key is pitching and defense, and running the heck out of the bases.”
The Oilers waited 107 years for their first CIF title, and they don’t plan on waiting that long for the next one.
“I was telling my wife, in almost everyone’s eyes, anything less than a repeat this year will be a failure,” Medure said. “And that’s totally unfair. And it’s not right. And so people can put that pressure on us all they want.
“Internally, we look at getting better every day, we look at sending kids to college, we look at playing as a team and just trying to win every day. I know that sounds cliche, but just trying to be the best we can every day and we’ll take whatever the result is.”
Freelance writer Joe Haakenson is based in Huntington Beach, Calif.