The revered 1-2 punch of starting pitchers Antonio Perez and Noel Sanchez on Riverbank High’s baseball team is missing a fist these days.
The two aces appeared primed to lead Riverbank to a playoff push this year after winning five hotly contested conference games in 2012 and splitting exciting series games with both Ripon (playoff qualifier) and Hilmar (section runner-up).
Perez (senior) threw wins against both Ripon and Hilmar last year, but will now compete without the assistance of Sanchez, a junior talent no longer enrolled at RHS. Sanchez made waves in Trans-Valley League play last year with a strong arm that in one game struck out 11 hitters in only six innings of work and left batters baffled throughout the year.
“Losing Noel was obviously a huge hit, but I think we are still going to be able to be competitive,” Riverbank coach Ismael Mercado said. “I still very much think that we can make something happen.”
Riverbank opened the 2013 preseason with a 1-1 stanza against opponents. The team eased past visiting Millennium 7-5 on Feb. 26, but dropped a 7-2 decision at home to Pacheco on March 1.
Competing without a junior varsity program this season, the Bruins have 17 players at the varsity level and a lineup that is still missing a collection of athletes currently alive in the winter sports season with the NorCal Championship-bound boys basketball team.
In their absence, coach Mercado has been able to plug fresh faces into the lineup and see serious competition for playing time. Though Perez is the clear ace of the pitching staff, Mercado said Chad Oliver, Tristin Rodgers and Rafael Verdin will also see action on the hill this year.
Oliver (senior) and Rodgers (junior) were solid in relief last year, while Verdin missed the 2012 season after an outing at the varsity level as a freshman in 2011. Verdin is a solid glove at third base, and has already made big contributions at the plate as well.
He was 3 for 3 during the loss to Pacheco and blasted an RBI double during the win over Millennium. Oliver and Perez landed key knocks during the Pacheco loss while freshman Roman Cota shined with a 2 for 4 effort against Millennium. Perez scored three runs and stole a base against the Falcons while Oliver (1 for 2, two walks, two runs) also came through against Millennium.
Mercado said he expects Cota to make a big impact at the varsity level in his freshman season. He also indicated high aspirations for leadoff hitter Julian Montoya, who shined on the junior varsity team last year. Justin Sandoval, Solomon Kumar, Carlos Ramos, Rafael Ramirez and Armando Manriquez should also get into the swing of things.
“I’m real optimistic for this year,” Mercado said. “I wish we had more of these young freshmen to make some noise, but we will do the best we can with what we have.”
Mercado’s younger brother Adan was a JV coach for Riverbank last year, but took a teaching job at nearby Waterford, where he coaches baseball and basketball.
Riverbank hosts Denair today, March 6, and is at Waterford on Friday, March 8.