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Bringing Bruins Back - Coaching Brothers Lead Resurgence On The Diamond
Back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section champions and returning state champions, Escalon, didn't always rule the Trans-Valley League.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s TVL dominance belonged to Riverbank, who claimed three league titles from 1996 to 1999. Ismael Mercado played varsity baseball for all four of those seasons, and watched his younger brother, Adan Mercado, join the program shortly after before moving on to Modesto Junior College and a baseball career at Missouri Western State University.

These days the Mercado brothers can be found back on the RHS baseball diamonds, valiantly attempting to restore their former program to its past glory.

"We are trying to get it back to where we know it can be," varsity coach, Ismael said. "I have been coaching for five years now at Riverbank, and when Adan was done at Missouri and I asked him if he would coach with me and he said absolutely."

The younger Mercado plays a vital role in the program as the head junior varsity coach. It's his task to mentor the young athletes and prepare for them for varsity career against one of the toughest small school conferences in the state.

"I like having Adan down there at JV because he has so much knowledge and he really develops the kids on his team. I really believe the JV team sets the tone for our program," Ismael said. "In a perfect world I would also have him at the varsity level, but I have been very fortunate to have the help of five varsity coaches and three at JV."

Both Mercados are working to rebuild a TVL program that hasn't seen a winning record and playoff berth since Adan's senior year in 2004, when Riverbank went 14-9 with a 9-5 conference showing.

The team went 24-128 overall and 12-97 from 2005 to 2011, and have won two or less conference games for six straight seasons.

But that's all in the past.

Riverbank opened TVL play with back-to-back victories over Modesto Christian on March 20 and 22 to kick start league play with a 2-0 stanza.

Things heated up Tuesday when Riverbank (4-4 overall) began a two-game stanza with Escalon (8-0 preseason), but results were not available at press time. The series continues on Thursday in Riverbank.

Escalon was the only team to not take part in a two-game conference series last week. Hughson (4-5) twice beat Orestimba (5-5) while Riverbank's wins forced Modesto Christian to drop to 5-3 on the season. Hilmar (6-3) and Ripon (3-4) split their series.

"The TVL is tough and obviously Escalon is a powerhouse that will always be up there," Ismael said. "I think the teams that can pitch well and play defense will be the teams to move on (to playoffs)."

If pitching determines the league outcome, then Riverbank should prove tough in each of their conference outings. The Bruins have a sharp two-man rotation of sophomore Noel Sanchez and junior Antonio Perez.

Sanchez made a TVL statement during Riverbank's 12-3 rout of MC on March 20 after six innings pitched with only one run surrendered and 11 strikeouts. He also hit 2 for 2 with three runs and a double in the same contest. Perez was 1 for 2 with two runs and four trips to first base while leadoff hitter Tristen Rodgers batted 2 for 4 with three runs. Anthony Gonzales hit 2 for 5 with two RBIs as well.

Two days later, Perez kept Riverbank alive after back to back strikeouts left runners stranded at second and third base in the opening inning. He tossed six sharp innings and played a role in a thrilling seventh inning that stole MC's lead. Perez tied the game on Chad Oliver's two-out single, and watched Oliver score the winning run when Armando Manriquez reached first base on an error.

"The kids were really excited," Ismael said. "We have put a lot of time in and we are getting off to a good start. It's still early and there is a lot more baseball left to play."

The Bruins sport just one senior (Bruce Gong) on the starting roster, and have seen quality at bats from the entire lineup. Oliver belted a home run during a 6-2 win over Denair on March 7 and watched Perez (2 for 3, triple) and Solomon Kumar (2 for 3) both hit well.

Rodgers (3 for 3, four runs), Perez (3 for 4, two RBIs) and Manriquez (3 for 4, four RBIs) all smashed three hits during a 12-3 rout of Waterford on March 9. Markus Benson hit 2 for 3 in the same game while Perez tossed five innings with 11 strikeouts and only three hits allowed.

The combination of sharp pitching, solid defense and contact hitting will be necessary for conference wins, and the 2012 Bruins have the group to do it.

"It takes a lot of pressure off the defense knowing we have two pitchers that will take control of innings and go deep into some games," Mercado said. "We have three quality relievers (Rodgers, Oliver, Sam Gong) and that will help us in league as well."