OAKDALE — Bryce Gerhardt enjoyed last year's Sac-Joaquin Section baseball title as much as his Oakdale High teammates, but it also left him a little hollow.
From the time he picked up his first baseball, Gerhardt was one of those kids always selected early for schoolyard games and a regular on youth all-star teams.
He had to fight for playing time last year, squeezing in at-bats as a late-inning replacement, and it forced him to make a decision.
"I realized I had to get bigger, faster and spend more time working on the game," the Mustangs' second baseman said. "I think I worked harder than I ever had." The results have been worth it.
Gerhardt, as he has done much of the season, provided an early spark Wednesday as the Mustangs beat Manteca 7-0 to clinch the Valley Oak League crown.
Gerhardt's single came in the midst of a five-run first, and with left-handed ace Justin Jones (8-0) on the mound, that was plenty.
"I see every pitch from second base and there's not a better guy in the area at placing the ball," said Gerhardt, whose Mustangs (18-3, 10-1) are The Bee's top-ranked large-school team. "He won't throw it over the middle of the plate, but he throws strikes." Jones struggled early against the Buffaloes (13-10, 7-4), allowing two runners to reach in each of the first four innings, but a combination of strikeouts and defensive plays ensured the shutout.
Jones struck out 10 and walked two, giving him 80 strikeouts in 47 innings. The senior has a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has yet to surrender a homer.
"Justin had some problems early in the game, working with runners on," Oakdale coach Hondo Arpoika said. "But he fought his way out of it with strikeouts and his defense helped him, too." Gerhardt provided a defensive gem, laying out behind second base to grab a ball that appeared headed to center field. It was a reminder to Gerhardt that his rigorous offseason was worth it.
"You can get burned out doing too much over the summer, but I came back every day," said Gerhardt, who scooped grounders, lifted weights and spent hours in the batting cage in his back yard.
He's added 20 pounds, two inches and is a step faster since last season, and is batting .328 with 11 walks and one strikeout in 83 plate appearances. He's also been hit by six pitches and has stolen eight bases without being thrown out.
In short, he's the ideal No. 3 hitter in Oakdale's potent lineup, putting the ball in play and finding different ways to reach base.
"I'll be honest, it feels a lot better playing a bigger role this season," Gerhardt said. "We've got a good team again and our theme from the start has been that winning league won't be enough." Oakdale has secured one of the VOL's playoff berths, with Manteca, East Union (6-4) and Sierra (6-5) battling for the other two.