Oakdale High catcher Bryce Kirk is the Valley Oak League MVP after steering the Mustangs to the title.
Kirk was joined on the first team by a league-high five teammates, including pitchers Vito Rodin and Blake Whiting, outfielder Cullen Bearden, and infielders Michael Juarez and Nick Moore.
“They’re all deserving,” Oakdale coach Nate Gregory said. “There’s a lot of good kids in the league; some great competition. Manteca had great guys all over the field. Every team had a few deserving players, so it was a very competitive field.”
Gregory said it was his players’ performances in big games that earned them votes from opposing coaches at the year-end meeting.
“The numbers, yes, but you could even go as far as the little things in big games … the championship-type games against Manteca and the others,” Gregory said. “It was their performance in those big moments.”
The Mustangs (25-7, 14-0) won the VOL title in convincing fashion, going undefeated and finishing four games up on runner-up Manteca. Oakdale advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs as the No. 2 seed. The Mustangs eliminated No. 10 Rio Americano and then defeated No. 3 Yuba City in a three-game series to clinch its 12th finals appearance.
In a rematch of the Division III football final, Christian Brothers got its revenge, riding a grand slam to a 5-2 victory over the Mustangs.
“It was one pitch,” said Gregory, who started nine seniors in the championship game. “It was a 2-0 (count), so it wasn’t rocket science. But the guy still had to square it up.”
By then, of course, Kirk had already locked up the VOL MVP award.
He ranked among the Stanislaus District’s top power hitters, launching four home runs and 10 doubles, both team highs despite seeing far fewer pitches. The Pacific-bound senior also hit .329 while playing near-flawless defense behind the dish. He had just one error in 147 chances.
“If you watch him catch, he steals five or six pitches a game the way he receives the ball at the bottom of the zone,” Gregory said. “Guys don’t run on him. He quiets the running game.”
Kirk’s patience was a key to his success. He was walked 16 times, as opposing teams challenged the other Mustangs to beat them.
“Being in the three-hole, anytime there was a bag open or guys on, or even with nobody on, guys were careful with what they threw at him,” Gregory said. “I thought he did a good job with his approach, understanding how they would come at him. It was frustrating at times. He wanted the fastball to square up like everyone else, but he had to adapt.”
With Rodin and Whiting, Oakdale commanded two of three slots reserved for pitchers on the first team. Rodin was 9-0 with a team-best 0.55 ERA and one save, while Whiting was 9-1 with 0.78 ERA and 102 punchouts.
Bearden led the Mustangs in average (.412), at-bats (97), hits (40), RBIs (34) and triples (four). His 16 extra-base hits were also two better than Kirk’s total.
A standout football player on the Mustangs’ CIF State championship team, Bearden has developed into a dynamic two-sport athlete. He came to Gregory as a raw prospect in 2016 – “He didn’t even know how to run the bases,” coach quipped – but leaves the high school with a future in both sports.
And he’ll try.
Bearden hopes to play football and baseball at Modesto Junior College, said Gregory, adding the 6-foot-3, 220-pound outfielder has a unique set of physical gifts.
“He’s been a football guy predominantly, but over the last two seasons, he’s grown tremendously as a (baseball) player,” Gregory said. “His understanding of situational hitting, I think you saw it (improve) down the stretch. He got hot.”
Juarez hit .367 and paced Oakdale with 10 stolen bases. Moore led the team in runs with 31, and was second to Bearden in hits (37) and RBIs (28). Together, Juarez and Moore combined to turn 19 double plays.
Oakdale’s Nate Gregory is the Coach of the Year, while Manteca senior Joel Olmos (.483, 36 runs, 43 hits, nine stolen bases) was been awarded the Offensive Player of the Year award.
Olmos was joined on the first team by a pair of underclassmen: sophomore shortstop Alex Gouviea and freshman Ryan Ward, who was 11-1 with three completes games and a 1.18 ERA in 13 starts.
East Union had three first-team selections: junior catcher Brayden Hardcastle; senior infielder Gyse Hulsebosch; and junior outfielder Mason James. Sierra placed senior infielder Jesse Babauta and junior outfielder Jacob Peterson on the first team.
Weston Ranch senior Manuel Rubio (outfield) and Kimball junior Jacob Juarez (utility) rounded out the first team.
Members of the second team included: Weston Ranch junior pitcher Rylan Tinsley; East Union sophomore pitcher Andrew Morones; Lathrop junior pitcher Shawn Cummings; Sierra senior catcher Jaden Pina; Weston Ranch senior infielders C.J. Drain and Larry Martinez; Oakdale senior infielder Blake Maddock; Manteca junior infielder Kyle Rachels; Oakdale senior outfielder Jordan Williams; Kimball junior outfielder Drew Riddick; Weston Ranch sophomore outfielder Austin Cappas; and Oakdale junior outfielder Corey Hinojosa.
Those receiving an honorable mention were: Weston Ranch’s James Peavy and Amier Bowen; Lathrop’s Estevon Sanchez; Oakdale’s Tyler Hall; Sierra’s Hunter Fisk and Chase Sperbeck; Kimball’s Dax Dibble; Manteca’s Zach Chamberlain; Central Catholic’s Dylann Heath; and East Union’s Danny Marquez.