HANFORD — After a third consecutive undefeated East Sequoia League season — and a sixth league title in a row — Sierra Pacific also landed the top honors in the All-East Sequoia League teams.
A total of six Sierra Pacific players made the All-ESL team — more than any other team — and no one was better in the league this season than Gavin VanGronigen. The Golden Bears catcher was named the Most Valuable Player, in addition to making First Team, after leading the league in multiple categories.
“I knew the coaches were going to put my name up there, but it was all kind of close between me and a couple of kids,” VanGronigen said. “It was a little surprising because the other two kids were seniors, so I thought maybe they’d be a little more prone to getting it instead of me. But when I heard that I was happy, I was excited.”
In nine league games, VanGronigen’s .625 batting average, 20 hits and .667 on-base percentage all led the ESL according to MaxPreps. The junior was also second in slugging (.750), third in RBIs (15), tied for third in doubles (4) and tied for seventh in runs scored (13).
“One of the keys is just staying on top of everything,” VanGronigen said. “The beginning of the season was a little rough for me. … Just kind of kept with it, kept working on it and it ended up being all right, ended up turning it back around.”
Turn it around he did as the 17-year-old catcher had a hit in eight of nine league games with five being multi-hit performances. He was a wall behind the plate with only one passed ball and rarely let a runner steal.
VanGronigen also had an excellent eye for the strike zone and excelled in putting the ball in play. In 39 plate appearances, he didn’t have a single strikeout and drew six walks. Once on base, he was a threat to run and was a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts — the third-most of any player.
“Depending on who we were facing and who the pitcher was I just kind of would remember them from previous years and know where they would pitch me,” VanGronigen said. “If they knew who I was or if they didn’t or if they knew how to throw me, I would take all that into consideration. If the ball was in the strike zone then I was going to swing at it. I was looking for a more aggressive approach this season.”
During the second week of March, his aggressive approach came to full fruition when VanGronigen put together a memorable two-game span. He was 5-for-5 against Lindsay with two RBIs and three runs, and then turned around and went 5-for-6 with two RBIs and two runs against Granite Hills. He had two doubles, two stolen bases and caught a runner, while pitching two scoreless innings with four strikeouts.
“We’ve always had a lot of credit for our pitching staff, but when you have a catcher like VanGronigen, it’s easy for our coaches and our pitchers to trust what our pitchers are doing knowing that we have a catcher that we can trust,” Sierra Pacific coach David Furtado said.
In addition to VanGronigen, Sierra Pacific’s Gavin Gamble and Elias Garcia also made First Team. Gamble was third in the league in batting average (.487) and fourth in OBP (.595). Garcia was second in the league with 11 stolen bases (out of 11 attempts), third with 17 runs scored and fifth batting .450.
The Golden Bears had Will Springer, Zach Barber and George Dunker selected to the Second Team. Springer was sixth in OBP (.548), Dunker was seventh in batting average (.442), while Barber was third in ERA (0.58) and second in strikeouts (49).
“It seemed like we always had those guys getting streaky at times and putting in the effort in different times to get some things done for us,” Furtado said.
The six all-leaguers helped guide the Golden Bears to a 21-4 overall record and 12-0 ESL record. Sierra Pacific has won 42 league games in a row and had a plus-124 run differential this season. The team allowed a league-low 1.58 runs per game — along with four shutouts — while scoring a league-high 11.92 runs per game.
Sierra Pacific will lose three of their six players who made all-league, but Furtado said the team has plenty of young talent returning to the roster coupled with some older players to help lead the way.
“You graduate kids out and you look forward to the kids coming up from our JV program, who also had a good year for us,” Furtado said. “You look forward to some of that young talent coming in, taking a role and finding a spot. That’s what you look forward to every year.”
The selection process was changed this season with the league champion automatically receiving three selections on the First and Second Team. The second place team received two selections on both teams and the rest of the teams each had one.
Only the MVP and Coach of the Year award are voted on by the ESL head coaches.
A total of 19 baseball players made the All-ESL teams.