Cougars peaking at the perfect time

Andrew Kachel and Travis Romero have been key players in the Cougars' season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

After a somewhat slow start in Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division play, the Christopher High baseball team seems to be playing its best with a couple of weeks left in the regular-season. The Cougars entered the week at 15-4-2 overall and 9-4-2 in league, with their pitchers dazzling at times, the lineup producing in key moments and their defense playing sound.

And even when a standout player goes down—Andrew Kachel missed three weeks but has since returned—Karson Mazotti came in and made an impact. That’s a good sign for Christopher, which has played league leader San Benito High tougher than any other team in the division. 

“Karson stepped up and filled some pretty big shoes,” Cougars coach Ryan Dequin said. “He was able to hold down second base for us, and did a great job of giving us opportunities to win ballgames. He’s been invaluable to our team.”

So has JoJo Aguilera, who missed the first half of the season but since returning has made up for lost time. Since Aguilera played in his first game on April 2, the Cougars are 6-0-2, counting a forfeit victory against Monterey. It’s no coincidence. 

“He’s a solid outfielder for us and a threat in the lineup,” Dequin said. “He knows how to handle the bat well and gives us another weapon in the lineup.”

Jake Ornellas, who has emerged as a bona-fide No. 1-type pitcher, said Aguilera provided an instant boost to the team. 
“JoJo had a great first game back and it gave everyone a nice push,” Ornellas said. “Something seemed to click.”

Ornellas has been a vital part of the team’s improved play. It all started with his complete-game gem in a 4-2 win over San Benito on April 4, a game in which he allowed just three hits and one run in going the distance. On the following day, the teams played 11 innings of scoreless baseball—yes, 11—only for the game to be suspended due to darkness. It will be resumed before the start of the team’s third and final scheduled contest on May 3.

“It was great to finally beat Hollister at home,” Ornellas said. “Our coach was stressing how important that game was. That game was a turning point, especially for our defense.”

Indeed, Christopher knows should it advance to the postseason, playing well against a quality team like San Benito will serve it well. 

“We’ve always competed with Hollister and been able to give them a run for their money,” Dequin said. “Our guys always compete and do their best. When they played the way they did, it was awesome and exciting to see just what this team is capable of.”

Christopher’s pitching has been rock solid the last few weeks, with Ornellas, Matt Peters and Brendan Lodge emerging as players who can shut down the opposition on a moment’s notice. 

“Jake has been lights-out,” Dequin said. “He and Petey have been a nice 1-2 punch, and Brendan has been dong well coming into his own.”

Ornellas, a right-hander, utilizes a wicked slider to keep hitters off-balance. He also keeps his fastball low in the zone, making it that much more effective. 

“He can throw strikes when needed and is not afraid to challenge guys and come inside,” Dequin said. 

“This year I have a lot more control with my slider and changeup, and that helps to be able to throw those pitches in any count,” Ornellas said. 

Last season, the Cougars peaked at the perfect time—late in the season—and advanced to the CCS Division II playoff semifinals, losing to Soledad in a heartbreaker, 6-5. Although the Cougars graduated their top two starters off last year’s squad, pitchers like Ornellas have emerged to be difference-makers. From a position player standpoint, Christopher is probably stronger than the 2018 group. 

“The guys are learning how to win the one, two-run ball games,” Dequin said. “They’re battling to the end and playing our best ball at the right time, so it’s pretty nice.”

After the end of the 2018 season, Ornellas’ arm was shot. He took a month off throwing before starting the travel ball season with Dub Baseball. One of Ornellas’ huge points of emphasis was getting stronger so he doesn’t go through another period of dead arm syndrome at the end of this season. 

“I worked to get in a position where I wouldn’t get hurt like I did last season, because my arm was dead,” he said.

Whenever Christopher plays San Benito, bragging rights are at stake for five of the players. Ornellas and team Garret Santos—along with the Haybalers’ Brady Miguel, Matt Campo and West Andrade—all play for Dub Baseball. 

“The five of us are pretty close,” Ornellas said. “We were texting each other leading up to the game just excited to play the game.”

Even after Ornellas got the better of San Benito that day, he didn’t rub it in afterward. After all, the teams still had two more games left with each other. As long as the Cougars stay healthy, they’re confident in their ability to unleash another strong playoff run. 

“It really depends on how the bracket sets up and what seed we get,” Ornellas said. “But if we stay healthy, play good defense and keep hitting, I feel we can go far, if not farther than last year.”

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