A year ago, the Gregori High baseball team chased perfection, carrying a season-long unbeaten streak into the regular season's final game.
The Jaguars (28-3) attacked teams with one of the deepest rosters in recent memory, and their ill-fated pursuit of perfection – and a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I South championship – frames our entry into the 2018 season.
How can the Stanislaus District, a baseball hotbed that stretches from Merced to Manteca, possibly top that storyline? Well, here's a start.
The Bee is compiling a watch list of the top returning players in the area, beginning the names below. Keep in mind, this is a watch list – not rankings – and it is far from complete.
If you'd like to nominate a player, please send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then, enjoy:
Parker Cosby, catcher/pitcher, Escalon
Now in his third varsity season, Cosby has watched his role increase with every year. One of the top catchers in the Stanislaus District, Cosby became a middle-of-the-lineup monster for the Trans-Valley League champions and Sac-Joaquin Section finalists in 2017. His batting average doubled, jumping from .205 to .412, and he swatted seven doubles and scored 32 runs. This spring, Cosby is pitching for the depleted Cougars, and he's throwing well. He was 3-0 with a 0.44 ERA as of March 21.
Ben Polack, pitcher/outfielder, Beyer
Polack is one of the Stanislaus District's most recognizable athletes. A three-sport star for Beyer, Polack's future is on the diamond, where he's signed a letter of intent to pitch at San Jose State. As a junior, Polack was 2-0 in five appearances with a 1.35 ERA. He also hit .320 with 16 hits, 15 runs and six RBIs.
T.J. Wheeler, pitcher/third baseman, Beyer
The balls jumps off Wheeler's bat. The senior ranked among the Patriots' offensive leaders in 2017, batting .333 with 21 hits and 13 runs scored. He led the team in RBIs (16), doubles (six), triples (two) and home runs (one) en route to an all-Modesto Metro Conference first-team selection. He'll also pitch for coach Dom Duran. Wheeler was 2-2 with a 1.65 ERA in six appearances last spring.
Joey Mundt, pitcher, Central Catholic
Last April, Central Catholic coach Danny Ayala was forced to shut down Mundt, who pitched "on sheer will" as he battled a mysterious back injury. Mundt is committed to Oregon State, one of the top programs in the nation, but Ayala believes the 6-foot-5, 220-pound prospect may hear his name called in the next MLB draft. Until then, he'll toe the rubber for the Raiders, albeit on a pitch count.
Tyler Soderstrom, catcher/third baseman, Turlock
The 6-2 Soderstrom made quite the splash as a freshman, nearly matching his older brother Tate Soderstrom's power numbers. Tate Soderstrom is now a freshman at the University of Arizona, where he's started three games. The younger Soderstrom had 23 hits, including six doubles, and 14 RBIs in his varsity debut for the Bulldogs, one of the top teams in the Stanislaus District this spring. Tyler Soderstrom is part of a young nucleus that also includes Justin Hines and Mason King, among others.
Dallin Tilby, pitcher, Turlock
Another three-sport athlete, Tilby took on the challenge of becoming the Bulldogs' ace after Damon Treadwell (now at Cal) blew out his elbow. Tilby was 6-1 with two complete games and a 1.09 ERA. He allowed just eight earned runs in 51-plus innings and led the team with 37 strikeouts. Tilby bagged wins against Merced, Oakdale, El Capitan (two), Atwater and Tokay.
Julian Favela, pitcher, Gregori
The Stanislaus District's top returning arm, Favela was a catalyst in Gregori's pursuit of a perfect regular season in 2017. He was 9-0 with a 0.34 ERA, six complete games, and 96 strikeouts in 61.2 innings. The MMC's Pitcher of the Year had 10 or more strikeouts in five straight starts, beating Modesto, Lodi (twice), Johansen and Enochs during that stretch. In a 4-1 victory over St. Mary's in the Division I South tournament, Favela gave up one run on four hits, while fanning eight.
Branden Pasion, third baseman/pitcher, Gregori
Now in his third varsity season, Pasion has been a do-it-all type for coach Jim Davis. As a sophomore, Pasion pitched at the top of the rotation, racking up five wins. Last spring, he pitched sparingly. Instead, he anchored the "hot corner" for the Jaguars, hitting .342 with eight doubles. Pasion, along with fellow junior Colton MacCaughtry (.387, 28 RBIs), were named to the all-MMC first team.
Carlos Castillo, pitcher/first baseman, Modesto
A versatile senior and all-MMC second-team selection, Castillo is part of a strong core that also includes Tyler Shafer, R.J. Soria and Evan Klump. Castillo is the workhorse in the bunch. He was second on the team in innings pitched (42.2), strikeouts (54), ERA (2.30) and complete games (two). He topped the staff in wins (four), while hitting .299 with 23 hits, 12 RBIs, and four doubles.
Jacob Petersen, pitcher/outfield, Sierra
Peterson was named to the all-Valley Oak League first team last spring, a nod to his all-around game. Peterson hit .373 with 18 RBIs, 14 runs scored, and eight doubles. He was also 7-3 in 13 appearances with three complete games and a 2.11 ERA. The Timberwolves were 5-1 in his starts over the final month of the season.
Kyle Rachels, infield/pitcher, Manteca
The Simpson College-bound Rachels hit .346 with 28 hits, a team-high 23 RBIs, and 19 runs scores. Yet another decorated three-sport athlete, Rachels also paced the Buffaloes with 12 extra-basehits, including seven doubles.
Ryan Ward, pitcher, Manteca
As a freshman, Ward was second in the Sac-Joauquin Section in wins with 11. He went the distance three times for the Buffaloes, assuming a heavy work load for the two-time section champion. The all-VOL first-team selection struck out 88 batters in 71 innings, including a season-high 12 in a 7-0 win over Central Catholic on April 11.
Alex Gouveia, shortstop, Manteca
The Buffaloes' junior shortstop has been a fixture at the varsity level since his freshman season, and for good reason. Gouveia, an all-VOL pick, is slick with the glove and a tough out at the dish. He hit safely in 22 of the team's 29 games last spring, and committed just two errors in 95 chances.
Kody Cardoza, pitcher, Los Banos
Cardoza was named the Western Athletic Conference's Pitcher of the Year after developing an array of off-speed pitches to match his fastball. Only a junior, Cardoza was 6-1 with a 0.90 ERA and 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the 2017 league champions.