SAN DIEGO — For the first time in several seasons, there doesn't appear to be a clear-cut favorite in the Grossmont League baseball race, which begins today.
"There is no dominant team in the league," Valhalla Coach John Marlow said. "It could be a five- or six-team race. It could go to anybody."
Said Jim Saska, coach of Santana, defending league and San Diego Section 3-A champion: "You could see the league champ losing four games this year."
Santana has won two league and two section titles in the past three seasons.
Grossmont appears to be the most balanced team, but league coaches said the Foothillers will be joined by Santana, Granite Hills and El Capitan as favorites.
"Whoever gets hot at the right time is going going to win the pennant," El Capitan Coach Steve Vickery said.
El Cajon Valley
Last season's record: 1-15, 2-18
Coach: Doug Hartung
Top returners: Catcher Larry Brown (senior, bats right, throws right); pitcher/third baseman Rusty Pennock (senior, bats right, throws right); outfielder Gregg Velasco (senior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomers: Pitcher Kevin Davis (sophomore, bats right, throws right); outfielder Bill Rudd (sophomore, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: El Cajon Valley already has surpassed last season's total victories with a 3-2 record after playing in the GMC tournament last week. Hartung takes over the program after coaching the El Cajon Valley softball team the last five seasons. The Braves are much improved. Brown is hitting .375 this season. Davis, the Braves' No. 2 pitcher, and Rudd are up from the junior varsity. "I see a whole lot of improvement all the way around," Hartung said. "We're definitely one of the most improved teams."
Last season's record: 6-10, 11-15
Finish: Sixth, tie
Coach: Steve Vickery
Top returners: Pitcher Rob Arnold (senior, bats right, throws right); first baseman Carlos Gutierrez (junior, bats left, throws left); shortstop Jerry Aldridge (senior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomers: Third baseman Jason Escoto (sophomore, bats right, throws right); second baseman Dan Freeman (sophomore, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: El Capitan (4-2) is averaging nearly 12 runs a game. Pitching depth will be a question mark. Arnold was 7-8 last season, but coaches regard him as one of the league's better pitchers. Gutierez hit .408 last season and Aldridge is batting .500 after the first six games this season. El Capitan also is young, starting three sophomores: Escoto, Freeman and left fielder Jeremy Ellis.
Last season's record: 11-5, 15-9
Coach: Gordy Thompson
Top returners: Pitcher George Bishop (senior, bats right, throws right); outfielder Donnie Carroll (senior, bats left, throws left); outfielder Curt Southworth (senior, bats right, throws right); catcher Jason DeGroote (junior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomers: None
Outlook: Granite Hills (3-2) returns 10 players from last season's third-place team, but Thompson said the returners are inexperienced. The Eagles are sound offensively with team MVP DeGroote, Carroll and two-year letterman Southworth returning. "I don't think we'll have any trouble scoring runs," Thompson said. "Out situation here is, how far will our pitching take us?" Bishop was 3-1 last year and is the Eagles' No. 1 pitcher. Mike Raskin, 4-1 as a sophomore, will pitch in the No. 2 spot.
Last season's record: 9-7, 13-12
Coach: Bill Gray
Top returners: Pitcher Lane Dickson (senior, bats left, throws left); pitcher Roy Neder (junior, bats left, throws left); first base Mike Rendina (junior, bats right, throws right); second baseman Dave Entrekin (junior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomer: Infielder Donnie O'Brien (junior, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: Grossmont probably has the league's deepest pitching staff with Dickson and Neder. Dickson was 7-4 with 82 strikeouts last season, and Neder was 4-5 as a sophomore. The Foothillers also have offensive strength with Entrekin (.345 last season) and Rendina (.364). Grossmont may be the team to beat after going 18-0 through a high school summer league. Helix
Last season's record: 6-10, 8-16
Finish: Sixth, tie
Coach: Jeff Boutelle
Top returners: Pitcher Damon Luban (junior, bats left, throws left); catcher Rick Page (junior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomers: Outfielder Joe Appolito (senior, bats right, throws left); shortstop Richie Haar (sophomore, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: Helix is a young team as Boutelle has started four sophomores in nonleague play. The Highlanders (2-3) have been playing without Page, who injured his knee in the last game of winter league. Page hit .375 for the varsity last season as a sophomore. "We really need him," Boutelle said. Appolito will add some experience. The outfielder played his sophomore season at Valhalla and then transferred to a school outside the county last season. "We're young and inexperience but I think we'll do fairly well," Boutelle said.