The Live Oak and Sobrato baseball teams were set to have their best seasons in recent memory when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. With the high school spring sports season suspended until at least April 13, there is a distinct possibility that the 2020 season will be canceled outright, which would leave the Acorns and Bulldogs wondering what could have been.
Before play was suspended two weeks ago, Live Oak was 7-0-1 and Sobrato was 5-1. The 12-1-1 mark was the best combined start from the two Morgan Hill public high schools in several years, and it brought hope that this would be the year one or both of them could win a Central Coast Section playoff championship. If the season doesn’t resume, the careers of all the seniors on both teams will be over.
Two of the senior standouts—the Acorns’ Connor Hennings and the Bulldogs’ Justin Rashid—had breakout junior seasons in 2019 and were looking to do even greater things this season. One would be hard-pressed to find superior student-athletes than Hennings and Rashid, who have weighted GPAs of 4.0 and 4.4, respectively.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Hennings was the hottest player in all of the CCS before play got suspended, totaling three home runs, seven stolen bases, eight hits, and 13 RBI while also being spectacular on the mound. In a 6-3 win over St. Francis of Watsonville on March 10, Hennings was simply spectacular, hitting a grand slam to put the team ahead in the sixth inning. He was equally strong on the mound, tossing a complete-game with seven strikeouts.
“That was probably the highlight of my (baseball) career,” said Hennings, a pitcher and outfielder. “We were down 2-1 before the grand slam, so it felt good helping the team win. I was really hyped when I hit it.”
Hennings was methodical in his approach at the plate, taking three straight balls to start the at-bat. The St. Francis pitcher followed with a strike, then threw a pitch down the middle on a 3-1 count that Hennings hit for a grand slam.
“I just remember demolishing it,” he said. “Everyone on the bases was hyped, the crowd was going and everyone in the dugout was cheering as I rounded the bases. It was great.”
Rashid, a 6-foot, 225-pound pitcher/infielder, was also hot at the plate before play got suspended. He was hitting .500 with a 1.235 OPS and led the starters with a robust .679 on-base percentage, a byproduct of getting plunked nine times in just seven games. Rashid, who was the Blossom Valley League’s Santa Teresa Division Pitcher of the Year in 2019, had two complete games in as many outings this season, which is no surprise considering he was an absolute workhorse last year.
“Justin is good because he’s a smart baseball player,” Sobrato coach Mitch Martinez said. “He understands the game, is constantly thinking, understands batters, and situations. That is why he’s so good.”
If the season doesn’t resume, Rashid might have played in his last organized baseball game ever. With a weighted 4.4 GPA and no baseball scholarships on the table, Rashid isn’t going to wait for an offer when he will most likely have his school of choice to attend from his academics.
“I’m thinking this is probably it, so I kind of want to make this year count,” Rashid said before the season was suspended.
Even though the Bulldogs went 13-1 in winning the Santa Teresa Division last year and had basically had their entire starting lineup return for 2020, the BVAL coaches voted to keep them in the league’s B division despite Martinez’s request for them to move up to the Mount Hamilton Division (the BVAL’s top division).
“Our attitude and mindset was playing with a chip on our shoulder because last season we did everything we could to get into the A league,” Rashid said. “The vote not moving us up kind of bummed us out, but we’re planning to prove ourselves again so hopefully for the sophomores and juniors on this year’s team will get to experience playing in the A league next year.”
Rashid didn’t emerge as a force on the mound until last season, when he was pressed into duty after one of the team’s starters experienced severe arm fatigue. At the time, Rashid wasn’t particularly looking forward to getting back on the bump, as he got hit hard during his sophomore year.
“Sophomore year I had two or three relief appearances, and got roughed up each time,” he said. “After that year, I didn’t think I was going to pitch again.”
However, in his first start in 2019, Rashid was brilliant, throwing a compete game despite going into the contest with lingering doubts.
“The day I got the ball for the first start my junior year, I honestly did not want to pitch at all because of what happened sophomore year,” he said. “And I actually didn’t feel well that day and was about to tell coach I didn’t want to pitch. I didn’t end up saying anything, and it worked out.”
Did it ever. Rashid went on to earn Santa Teresa Division Pitcher of the Year honors, which included a strong non-league outing against Live Oak. For Rashid, the stark difference between his sophomore and junior year on the mound came down to a renewed mental approach.
“I started focusing on throwing more strikes last year,” he said. “As a sophomore, I was just trying to throw hard, was walking people and got lit up. So last year I was focusing on strikes and not trying to do too much. We’ve proven to be a pretty good defensive team, so I’m confident if I get ground balls and fly balls, I have trust my defense will work and get the job done.”
Rashid possesses a big 12 to 6 curveball, which he can throw on any count. His fastball tops out in the low 80s, but because he changes speeds well, it is deceptively swift and comes up on batters fast—no pun intended. Having always focused on his strength—hitting—in previous years, Rashid spent ample time working on his pitching in the off-season, knowing he would once again play a major role on the mound. As the team’s No. 3 hitter, Rashid has proven to be a productive player, hitting to all parts of the field and getting on base in a variety of ways.
Both Hennings and Rashid get the job done on and off the field, as their academic record attests. Rashid will go through high school with all A’s and one B, the latter he received in calculus during his junior year, with an 89 percent in the class no less. Hennings has taken academics just as serious as his athletic endeavors, and was one of 23 recipients to earn a $1,000 scholarship by the College Football Hall of Fame Northern California chapter. The honorees were selected out of a pool of hundreds of student-athletes from 12 Northern California counties, with qualifications including a minimum 3.0 GPA and having “demonstrated leadership abilities and traits in school and in the community,” according to a Northern California chapter press release.
Live Oak baseball coach Matt Brotherton was incredibly excited for this season, noting this is the most talented team he’s had in the four years he’s served as the team’s skipper.
“We have a really talented team, and talent makes a coach look smart,” he said. “They’re really good and have been well coached since they were young. Most of them understand the subtle nuances of the game it takes from years of playing. We have young players with a high baseball IQ, so we’re in a good spot right now and in the future (as the junior varsity team was undefeated through its first six games). We’re stacked right now. There’s an old saying in coaching that the Jimmies and Joes are more important than the X’s and O’s, and we have a lot of Jimmies and Joes now.”
Despite the threat of the season being canceled, Hennings has taken a positive approach to the situation.
“I’m obviously going to stay motivated now and through the summer wherever I end up playing,” he said. “I’m going to work out everyday, try to get to go to the (batting) cages and go into the DUB facility because they have cages and a weight room. It’ll keep me motivated just to work harder, and hopefully an offer will come late spring or the summer.”
Along with Hennings, Tyler Madden, Will Waxman, Patrick Kissee, Drew Becks, and Mitch Nagel form a deep pitching corps. Twin brothers Justin Kester-Johnson and Trevor Kester-Johnson give new meaning to the term twin power. Justin hits leadoff and had a .400 batting average before the season was suspended, while Trevor is a 5-11, 160-pound sophomore who can play multiple positions.
Another sophomore, Cole Wilson, provided stellar play at shortstop and had a .450 on-base percentage, while senior Richie Maes made phenomenal plays in the outfield. Junior Neo Ocampo was also flashing some serious leather at third base, and Josh Elam was hitting .414 and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. As the team’s catcher, Madden provided on-field leadership, and Kissee provided a potent bat hitting in the cleanup spot.
Like its crosstown rivals, Sobrato is deep, talented and was ready to do some great things this season. The Bulldogs’ pitching staff was loaded, with Rashid, Josh Balderas, Shane Callison, William Conn, Alex Percini and Nathan Medeiros being the headliners. On the day of his starts, Shane Callison would pitch to his brother, catcher Cooper Callison.
“They never get rattled out there,” Martinez said. “They take command and they play smart.”
The Callison brothers fill the first two spots in the lineup, followed by Rashid. Sobrato doesn’t really have a weak spot in the order, as Conn, Will Nikitas, Nicholas Ketner, Balderas and Percini all having the ability to hit and get on base. Martinez was also expecting big things out of junior first baseman Tommy Wilson. Sophomore Tyler Pina played well at catcher when Cooper wasn’t behind the dish, and the outfield of Balderas, Conn and Shane Callison cover a lot of ground and has shown the ability to make highlight-reel catches.
Speaking of defense, senior Michael Barone has been Martinez’s shortstop for the last three years. Two things can be equally true: While the suspension of the season is totally justifiable, one can’t help but feel for the thousands of athletes locally—especially the seniors—who spent four years working for one last shot of glory. Many of them are trying to earn a scholarship offer, and those dreams might have instantly disappeared.
And for teams like Live Oak and Sobrato—which have assembled their most talented squads in recent memory—they might not even have a chance to make a run at a CCS championship. Years from now, they will only be able to wonder what could’ve been.
“Obviously, all of us are really sad because we were looking to be really good this year,” Hennings said. “And now we might have just played our last game.”