CBB: Vaqueros have tools for another strong season

Kit Larson - SBCC Baseball

Kit Larson and the SBCC baseball team begin their season on Friday.


With the taste of the best playoff run in school history fresh in its mouth, the SBCC baseball squad is setting the bar higher for the 2015 campaign.

The pitching staff has improved and the Vaqueros return seven starters in the field. Kit Larson, an All-American closer who’s signed with North Carolina State, will head up a solid bullpen.

“We’re better on the mound and pretty much the same with the position guys,” said fourth-year coach Jeff Walker. “This is the most talented team we’ve had in quite some time.

“We have a lot of experience and we’re very deep in pitching. I also think we’ll have better power at the plate.”

The Vaqueros finished fifth in California last year and posted the second-most wins in school history (27-15). They went 4-0 in their first two playoff series (outscoring the opponents 28-6), then lost two games in the best-of-3 Sectionals at Oxnard by a total of two runs (2-1 and 3-2).

Santa Barbara had the sixth-best offense in Southern Cal last year, averaging 6.1 runs. They opened the season with 10 straight wins for the best start in school history.

The Vaqueros will host Napa in a three-game, season-opening series at Pershing Park. The opener is Friday at 2 p.m., followed by a doubleheader on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The Vaqueros received their highest preseason ranking ever. They’re No. 4 in Southern Cal, one spot behind defending WSC North champ Oxnard. Five WSC North teams are ranked in the top 18.

There are 20 sophomores on the 35-man roster.

The returning starters are James Brakka (1B), Spencer Erdman (Shortstop, 3B), Matt Henderson (SS), Matt Gimenez (3B), Connor McManigal (LF), Brandon Evans (CF) and Noeh Martinez (RF). Infielder Payton Milone and outfielder Colby Taylor, who both played a lot on the 2013 team, are also back after redshirting last year.

Derek Rustich is a 6-3, 230-pound third baseman who transferred from UCSB. He’s also one of six potential left-handed hitters in the Vaquero lineup.

McManigal, a sophomore from Santa Barbara High, is the top returning hitter with a .306 average. Henderson hit .286 while Erdman batted .283 with a team-high 14 stolen bases.

“We have lots of talent,” McManigal stated. “Our pitching is the best that we’ve had in a long time. We have guys coming out of the bullpen who could start at any other school.

“We’d love to get to Fresno (for the State Final 4) but that’s in the back of our mind. We have to take it one inning at a time and one game at a time.”

Moorpark has restarted its program and rejoined the WSC North, which means there will be seven teams this year and byes in the 24-game conference season. The Vaqueros took second in conference last year with an 11-9 record.

Larson went 4-2 last year with six saves and an impressive 41 strikeouts with two walks in 38.1 innings. He broke two longtime schools records for ERA with a 0.94 overall mark and 0.82 in conference.

He’ll be joined in the bullpen by Davis Messer, Jake Keily, 6-4 Steven Ledesma from Ventura High, 6-6 Ian Clark (a redshirt freshman from Sonoma State) and Pierce Romero, a transfer from Ohlone College who’s thrown as high as 94 mph. .

Justin Bruce will be the No. 1 starter and he’s slated to start on Friday. The sophomore from San Jose was 7-5 last year with a 3.65 ERA and three complete games. Saturday’s starters will be Lucas Jacobsen in Game 1 and Sean Barry in Game 2.

Jacobsen is a 6-5 left-hander from Westmont High in Campbell, Calif. Barry was an All-State player at Moorpark High in 2013, when he went 11-1 with 152 strikeouts in 90 innings. Jacobsen and Barry have both committed to NCAA Div. 1 schools (Jacobsen to Long Beach State; Barry to Univ. of San Diego).

“It’s pretty special to have three Div. 1 pitchers on your roster,” said Walker. “Some teams don’t have three Div. 1 pitchers in three years. It’s a testament to the work they’ve done and the work Coach (Justin) Aspegren has done with them.”

Jake Gagain, a 6-4 freshman who batted .391 for Newsome High in Lithia, Fla., will handle the catching duties along with James Hill, who played for the Vaqueros last year.

“This is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on,” said Brakka, a former San Marcos High standout. “We’ve got talent, we’ve got more pitching and we have experience, which is huge. This is a great group of guys. We’re one big family.”

Walker says it’s important to “stay in the moment” and not get ahead of themselves.

“We really have to enjoy the details and enjoy each other,” he concluded. “We have a lot of guys who came within two runs of playing for a state title last year. Hands down, this is the most talent and most experience we’ve had in a long, long time.”