The path to success

JACK NEHLS of Westview stares down a line drive March 3 at Westview. Nehls will return for the Knights in 2018 after batting .337 with eight doubles, 18 runs scored and 20 RBIs as a freshman. View photo by Mike Rincon
JACK NEHLS of Westview stares down a line drive March 3 at Westview. Nehls will return for the Knights in 2018 after batting .337 with eight doubles, 18 runs scored and 20 RBIs as a freshman. View photo by Mike Rincon

Westview baseball continues turnaround after 1st winning season of decade

It’d be a tough task to find a baseball program that’s improved more than Westview has in the last three years. The Knights posted their first winning season in more than a decade in 2017 — 15-12-1 — and have vastly improved their fortunes in the three years under John Irish’s tutelage.

What’s on deck for Westview? Continuing its positive trajectory after losing the core of its team that got it to this point.

The Knights’ summer program was everyone’s first taste of the new team. The period experienced, and battled through, highs of different varieties. The team had a large turnout for the early workouts that included nine incoming freshmen, which was far and away the highest number of participating young newcomers since Irish took over as head coach. On the other hand, the Knights saw their workload cut down because of the extreme heat wave that rolled through the Valley in June.

Honestly, we lost a lot of games due to heat,” Irish said. “We had to shut down early games, and had to play one game at 8:30 [p.m.] during that big heat week. We didn’t get as many games in as we normally do, and that was due to the weather. We still got some quality games in, and I got to see a lot of new guys.”

The Knights were hit with the injury bug last season, and while disadvantageous at the time, it has allowed the team to return some experience in the lineup.

Those players that are coming back did get to see some playing time, just because of the way we had to shuffle things with injuries and everything,” Irish said. “It’s going to be a junior-class-driven team, [but] it’s not going to be a complete start over.”

Pablo Gaytan comes back with the most experience of the returners. He hit .319 with four doubles and 12 RBIs last season, and went 2-2 on the mound with a 3.85 ERA in 36.1 innings pitched. Gaytan has also embraced a leadership role this summer, Irish said.

He can be the ace of our staff,” Irish said. “He’s the guy who kind of puts it together.”

The Knights have begun the task of completing the defensive puzzle, shifting guys around to find the best fit in the field.

Summer-wise, we were looking to move guys to different positions to see who can fill what,” Irish said. “We still have some holes, and we still have to replace a large part of the outfield, but we saw some guys out there that put some good, positive time for that.”

Irish was pleased with the incoming freshman class turnout, but it wasn’t just a numbers game. He expects some of them to throw their names in the hat for varsity roster spots in the spring. Regardless of what level the freshmen will play at next year, the summer varsity exposure gives them a head start of knowing where they stand and what they need to improve upon physically and mentally to make an impact at the highest level, he said.

With freshmen, it’s kind of like opening a present. You never know what it’s going to be like,” Irish said. “[This class] has a good base and a good skill set, and we’re working on some things,” Irish said. “I think they’ll be able to progress and push for upper-level positions and playing time much earlier than some of the earlier classes were.”

Evolution

The Knights have had a small ball team philosophy for the better part of three seasons, taking advantage of the team’s speed and skill set, and translating them into victories. Moving forward, the team will be adapting its style, Irish said.

I think we still will have that element of our game, [but] every year, we have to evolve a little bit,” Irish said. “We don’t have as much speed as we did last year. I think we have more power in our bats than in previous years. That may change some of our approaches, we’ll just have to see.”

Fabian Chavez was one of only two players to hit a home run last season, and led the team with two. Between him, Lucas Deen and Gaytan, the Knights could potentially have more pop in the middle of their lineup than they did in previous seasons, Irish said.

We have a couple of guys who could legitimately take you out of the yard, which we really haven’t had,” he said. “We have some guys who can drive the ball into the gap and break an inning open. That will be a little bit of a change for us, having a number of guys who can do that.”

The Knights have improved by leaps and bounds on defense since Irish took over, and expect to be solid in the field again in the coming year. They lost their top two pitchers in Cameron Maxwell and Ramon Vega, but return Gaytan and Larry Ross, the latter of who surrendered only one run in 14.2 innings pitched as a sophomore. The Knights will continue to develop additional pitching options during the offseason workouts, which begin in late August.

Senior legacy

The departing senior class helped tally 25 wins since the beginning of the 2016 season. That’s the most victories in a two-year stretch since 2009-10, when the team won 22. The success was a testament to the players taking control of their own situation, and putting in the necessary work in order to succeed.

They wanted to improve, they laid the groundwork,” Irish said. “Not just this year’s class, but the year before. They really wanted to change Westview and be the catalysts for that. It was an entire buy in. The kids worked well and had great communication. It was a great experience for me as a coach. They were really great classes.”

Experience is often the best teacher, and that’s what the Knights’ resurgence comes down to. The team added more to its schedule, and began building from the ground up.

That first season, the game just wasn’t slowing down for anybody just because of a lack of summer programs in the past, lack of game time, lack of offseason stuff,” Irish said. “They were behind the eight ball, whereas this senior class was allowed to go through two real offseasons to get prepared. That started to show and become evident.

Realistically, they understood that it’s the detail, that baseball is a skill sport and they had to focus on their skills. They did the small things: being in the weight room, playing the game, focusing on the drills and working on their own, at times.”

The Knights began to see improvements and the process snowballed from there.

Once they started feeling success, they wanted to have more success,” Irish said. “They realized they had to take responsibility on themselves, and they did. That was one of the key things that really turned that around. They did what was required to become a better team.”

The Knights are confident the breakthroughs brought on by the previous classes will help guide the way for the future players in the program, eventually leading the Knights to a playoff position — a well that’s been remarkably dry for the better part of the 2000s.

It’s kind of cliché, but they are great character guys, they work hard and do what’s asked of them,” Irish said. “I think that’s a good measure of the program. Guys accept role positions and they’re being team guys. They all buy in; that’s going to be a bonus.”

 

Shane McOwen can be reached at smcowen@westvalleyview.com or on Twitter @ShaneMcOwen.

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