Capistrano Valley's Kyle Hunt, Tesoro's Kris Paulino and Mission… (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles…)
If anyone remains unconvinced about the magic of sports competition, here's the story of how three baseball players from rival high schools in southern Orange County became best friends.
Austin Saenz of Mission Viejo, Kris Paulino of Tesoro and Kyle Hunt of Capistrano Valley got together last November with family and friends and signed letters of intent to Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Nevada, respectively.
"It was kind of surreal," Hunt said. "I've always dreamed of signing a D1 letter and playing baseball, and I'm sure they had the same dreams. Signing with them was definitely a memorable moment because we've experienced so much together."
Hunt has known Paulino since they were 8 and Saenz since they were 10. They usually played against one another in youth baseball. Then, at 13, they played on the same team and friendships blossomed.
Saenz has gone wakeboarding, fishing and mountain biking with Paulino. Once a week, if their schedules permit, all three attend a Bible study class together at a local church. Once or twice each spring, they face off in baseball games and friendships get put on hold for a couple hours until one emerges with bragging rights.
Each is a leadoff hitter. Each lives, breathes and swears allegiance to the game of baseball. They've trained together, laughed together and teased together.
"I can remember a game we all made an error and were making fun of each other the whole time," Paulino said.
Each has the other's back, though when it's one friend playing against another, there's no holding back.
"We take the game pretty seriously," Saenz said. "Kyle was at shortstop and said, 'I'm going to pick you off the next pitch.' I remember one time Kris was in the outfield [and said], 'I hope there's a base hit so I can throw you out at home plate.'"
Before games, they usually chat. After games, they shake hands and no matter who wins or loses, they stay friends.
"It's a fun rivalry," Paulino said.
Added Saenz: "It's just nice to have friends who share the same interests as you and understand what you're going through, and you understand what they're going through, so you can help each other along the way."
They push one another and learn from one another.
Saenz and Paulino are outfielders. Hunt is a shortstop. Hunt won a Southern Section Division 1 championship as a sophomore, something the other two desperately want to achieve in their senior years.
"When you go into high school, this is the year you play for," Saenz said. "You always dream about your senior year, going to win CIF and moving on far in the playoffs. You really have to work hard day in and day out at practice and keep your goal in perspective."
Sometimes friends want to play together and end up transferring to the same school, but these three stayed loyal to their respective teams, convinced they could succeed in their own neighborhood.
"I think it was good for us that we all went to different schools," Paulino said. "It's fun playing against each other."
Said Saenz: "I think all three of us are pretty confident in our baseball programs, thinking we're the school to beat, and none of us wanted to give it up."
Said Hunt: "For them to want the CIF championship ring, go ahead and take it and go for it, but I'm going to be right behind them trying to get the same thing."
Yes, baseball has taught them to be competitive. But most important, it has taught them about life and offered a glimpse of the type of people they want to be friends with.
As Paulino said, "When you spend your whole summer with them on the field and see them succeed and see them fail, it really shows who they are."