WATSONVILLE — Two rounds of experience. Check.
Better pitching. Check.
Stronger bats. Check.
The Watsonville American Little League All-Stars are back in the Section 5 playoffs for the third straight season and they are a much-improved team since their last go-around.
The Section 5 tournament, which pits the top little league teams from the Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz County and Salinas Valley, begins today at Quito Little League in Los Gatos. The first two games of the tournament are scheduled for a 5:30 p.m. start.
Champion of the District 39 Majors tournament, Watsonville American will begin its quest for the section title on Friday at 5:30 p.m. against the winner of District 9 and District 44.
Three straight wins would not only clinch the section title for Watsonville American but also preserve its dream of representing the West in the prestigious Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pennsylvania later this year.
Of course, Watsonville American would need to not only win the section tournament but also the brutally tough divisional and regional rounds in order to play with the big boys from around the globe on ESPN.
Right now, Watsonville American manager Daniel Hernandez is trying to keep his team focused on one game.
“Things change when you get up [to sectionals],” Hernandez said during a recent practice, “but we feel pretty good about our team. We’re playing great right now.”
Playing great and working well together.
The vast majority of Watsonville American’s players have played together for the past four seasons and the results have been nothing short of golden. Watsonville American’s core group has won the District 39’s 9-year-old, 10-year-old and 11-year-old titles in the year’s leading up to this season’s Majors championship.
Abraham Bonilla, Pedro Ibarra Jr., A.J. Martinez, Eric Hernandez, Isaak Vargas, Vicente Mosqueda and Dominic Hernandez, Daniel’s son, have played for Watsonville American since they were 8, while other big contributors like Justin Pero, Jaiden Cardona and Richie Ortiz have joined the mix over the years.
The continuity has helped the group of All-Stars become one tightly-woven unit.
“These kids are like family to each other,” said Watsonville American assistant coach Pedro Ibarra Sr. “They hang out even off the baseball field. It’s ridiculous…It’s rare to not see these guys together. It’s a big advantage that they’re so tight. They don’t get down on each other. They’re always cheering each other on.”
Ibarra Sr. said this group of kids reminded him of this year’s St. Francis High boy’s basketball team, which won the California Interscholastic Federation Division V Northern California Regional title and advanced to the state championship. Ibarra Sr.’s oldest son, Ruben, was a member of the family-like team of goofballs that played on one of the biggest stages in all of high school basketball.
“This team is just like them. They just gel,” Ibarra Sr. said. “They mess around but they get the job done.”
Like St. Francis, Watsonville has been dominant.
Watsonville American advanced to the Section 5 tournament and captured the District 39 title after a 10-0 walloping of the Aptos Little League All-Stars just two weeks ago. It was one of three final four games in which they scored more than 10 runs.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
Watsonville American opened up postseason play with a stunning loss to the Santa Cruz National Little League All-Stars. The defeat meant Watsonville American had to win its next three straight in order to keep its season alive. The eventual champions passed the test and, Hernandez said, were ultimately grateful for the adversity.
“It’s good now, I think, it helped bring us back down,” Hernandez said. “This year was the toughest year because there were a lot of people doubting us or going after us…There were some tough games but we pulled through. Just the way they compete, the way they overcome. They don’t give up. They’ve overcome everything that’s come their way.”
They’ll have plenty of obstacles to overcome yet again starting on Friday.
Watsonville American has won its section tournament opener each of its last two seasons but has not been able to turn the early momentum into a championship game appearance. Last season, they began the 11-year-old tournament with a 10-0 victory but lost its next two by a combined 12 runs.
Hernandez, Ibarra and assistant coach Sylvia Plascencia, who officially joined the coaching staff this season, all agree that the team is better prepared this time around. Their pitching, led by Pero, who tossed a shutout in the District 39 championship, and Dominic Hernandez, is as solid as it ever has been. But their bats, all three coaches boasted, are their true strength this year.
“We have more power than we’ve had before — the kids are stronger,” Hernandez said. “A lot of them can hit it over the fence now. That’s been a nice surprise.”
“When they’re focused they’re on,” Plascencia said “They get on fire and they’re hard to stop.”