Anyone who saw the Santa Monica High baseball team early in the season wouldn’t recognize the squad now.
Five new players, including three sophomores, have assumed prominent roles and the Vikings established themselves as contenders in the Ocean League by sweeping two games from Morningside last week, 5-1 and 7-6 before losing a non-league game to San Pedro Saturday, 12-4.
Not only do the Vikings have offensive punch beyond star catcher Cody Decker, they’re better defensively, too.
The newcomers are Dylan Early and Michael Eyler in the outfield, Mike Schwartz as Designated Hitter, Junior Villanueva at first base and David Castellanos at third. With Early in center, Milan Depilars has moved to right.
“I made the changes primarily to improve the defense,” said Coach Kevin Brockway. “My philosophy is to put our best defensive team on the field.”
The offense improved too when Early began batting ahead of Decker and Schwartz behind him. Early in the season opponents frequently walked Decker intentionally, but that hasn’t been a successful strategy lately.
For example, Morningside walked him last Tuesday and Schwartz followed with the key hit of the game, a two-run single.
Some of the players who have lost their starting positions are still contributing. Stuart Boardman, who began the season at first base, has been effective as a relief pitcher. So has Justin Cooper, who was at third base in early season play. Cooper earned the save last Thursday at Morningside by striking out two batters in the seventh.
Mike Czarnetzki, who coached the Vikings the last six years, favored players who concentrated on baseball year-around. When Samohi was in the market for a new coach Brockway arrived with a different philosophy. He’s willing to give playing time to athletes who take part in other sports.
Three of the new contributors are soccer players who became available to the baseball team when the soccer season ended.
“I had heard these were good players, but I’m new here and I hadn’t seen what they could do,” said Brockway. “So they played a few games for our junior varsity. Then I saw they could help us.”
Early could have a bright future in baseball. He’s tall with a nice hitting stroke and provides a formidable challenge to a pitcher hoping to get an out before facing Decker.
With greater support, Decker has improved his RBI total to 30, including a three-run double in the second win over Morningside. He’s one of the best players in the CIF.
Decker remains the Vikings’ catcher, but when he graduates, Schwartz is expected to be the Vikings’ catcher the next two years.
Samohi and Culver City have become co-favorites in the league. Morningside was extremely optimistic about its chances this season because of an impressive lineup, but Samohi lefthander Mike Walsh dominated the Monarchs.
Another Samohi lefty starter, Chris Fiala, was equally impressive the previous Saturday in a 5-1 non-league win over Banning.
The recent surge improved Samohi’s record to 9-8.
Brockway, who coached at Santa Monica College before that school gave up the sport, played at Venice High and is well-respected. He appears to be a good fit at Samohi.
Czarnetzki is now the head coach at North Torrance, which plays in the Pioneer League.
Mike Griswold, who retired as athetic director of Samohi last year, has been to two recent baseball games.
“I liked what I saw so much the first time I decided to come back,” he said.
In the Ocean League each team plays the same opponent twice in the same week. The most crucial remaining games would appear to be the match-up of Samohi and Culver City. They’ll play May 3 at Samohi and May 5 at Culver City.
Two other Ocean League teams, Inglewood and Beverly Hills, split two games last week in their league openers.
Samohi was scheduled for two games against Inglewood this week.
Not only does Samohi have a talented team, it benefits from not having to play in the Bay League anymore. When Czarnetzki coached, the opponents were more formidable. But the CIF put together an Ocean League grouping in the last year where the teams in various sports have matched up well. In both football and basketball there wasn’t a runaway champion.