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GATEWAY LEAGUE BASEBALL – Fast start from Oropeza, Russell aid La Mirada to eighth straight league championship

The champs after their win over Gahr High. Photo Loren Kopff.

April 29, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

With La Mirada High needing to win once in its final two games against Gateway League nemesis Gahr High to take home a share of its eighth straight league championship, last Thursday’s game nearly took on the same shape of the first meeting on Apr. 23. In that game, the Matadores scored twice in the top of the first inning, then rode the hot arms of senior pitcher Walker Calvo, who allowed two hits through his four innings of work, and sophomore Kaden Corns, who pitched the final three innings and allowed two runners to reach base, as La Mirada blanked Gahr 4-0.

This time around, it was sophomore pitcher Jacob Oropeza who struck out five of the first six batters he faced and seven of the first 10 while junior third baseman Maverek Russell jump started the offense with a single to left field on the second pitch he saw. That was the beginning of three hits and two walks in the bottom of the first as La Mirada scored three times and went on to defeat the Gladiators 5-1. The Matadores would complete the three-game sweep of Gahr in a 10-2 last Friday to win the league outright and head into the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 playoffs with a 21-6 mark. The Matadores, ranked sixth in the division and winners of four straight, eight of their last nine and 18 of their last 21 games will host Oaks Christian High in the first round on Friday.

“Where do I begin,” questioned Russell. “We’ve worked so hard on everything. It means so much, not only for us, but for all our coaches. All the time they’ve put in; we appreciate them so much. Those times where they could be with their families, but they spend with us…we’re so appreciative of that. So, being able to give this back to them means more than the world. It’s awesome.”

“We talked [on Wednesday] about how when you’re playing a team like Gahr, who obviously year in and year out, for the history of Gahr baseball, have been incredible, and said, ‘hey, we threw the first punch’,” said La Mirada head coach Jimmy Zurn. “They’re going to come right back at us with their best shot, too, because that’s just what good teams do.”

After Russell’s single, senior pitcher A.J. Gonzalez walked junior right fielder Kevin Jeon and junior shortstop Aiden Aguayo to load the bases. Oropeza would then hit into a double play with Russell scoring, but on the next pitch, junior center fielder Travis Friend singled to center to bring home Jeon and senior designated hitter Sebestian DeAvila did the same to plate Friend. Gonzalez would last just one inning and threw 27 pitches.

“He’s been pitching tremendously, and we didn’t want to wait to use him,” said Gahr head coach Gerardo Perez. “I thought we would go ahead and start him. Sure enough, he gives up a hit, walks two people and we end up giving up two. Then we don’t catch a fly ball; I think one drops for the third run. We had our chances offensively to make it a closer game.”

“If you look at what Mav has done in the leadoff spot since we put him there, it’s incredible,” said Zurn. “He’s patient; he’s a table setter and he’s a top hitter in the area. He’s incredible. So, if you look at both games, he’s led off with hits. Kevin has had a good at-bat following him, then we get a big hit here and there.”

In the bottom of the second, freshman second baseman Bear Calvo greeted freshman pitcher Carlos Munoz with a home run over the left field fence near the line to make it 4-0. Calvo would lead off the fourth with a base hit to right, move to second on a sacrifice bunt from junior first baseman Jason Rodriguez and to third on a sacrifice fly from senior left fielder Tyler Primanto before Russell’s third hit closed out La Mirada’s scoring. Munoz worked five innings, allowing five hits and striking out three.

“He did a phenomenal job,” said Perez. “He’s a freshman; mixed speeds, struck out some guys. He gave up one home run on a hanging breaking ball, but outside of that, once again, we drop another ball that we didn’t read it real well.”

“We were just trying to swing the bat early and often,” said Russell. “That’s what all our coaches preach, and I think we did a really good job of that today. We struck first and like our coaches said, grab them by the neck and squeeze and I think we did that very well today. I’m so proud of this team.”

Russell added that the difference between the first two games was that the Matadores were swinging earlier in the counts. Of La Mirada’s 25 at-bats last Thursday, a strike was called on the first pitch 10 times while it put the ball in play on the first pitch six times.

But the story of the game was Oropeza, who escaped Gahr’s first scoring threat in the third when he struck out sophomore center fielder JoJo Eljaik and got senior right fielder Jose Perez to ground out after two had reached on singles around a strikeout. In the next inning, with one out, Oropeza hit senior designated hitter Mike Lee and one batter later, walked sophomore catcher Oscar Grijalva before getting junior left fielder Adrien Ramirez to fly out.

“He’s earned it,” said Zurn. “If you go back and look at his starts, though, he’s been in a lot of [big games]. He started against Mater Dei and he’s come in relief from South Hills to Santa Margarita. So he has seen the cream of the crop of D1 baseball. He’s not fearful; I’m just glad he’s with us for another two years.”

“I am so proud of that kid,” said Russell. “I can’t even explain, man. He has worked his butt off so much, and he deserves it. He really does put in the work with everything. You never see him slacking off in practice.”

Gahr (17-10, 9-3) would get to Oropeza in the fifth as sophomore second baseman Julian Lucero reached on an infield single after Munoz sharply lined out to Aguayo. Then with two outs and Lucero now on second after a wild pitch, Jose Perez singled. He would steal second and third before being stranded. The Gladiators would have a runner reach base in each of the final two frames, but neither got to third.

“That’s exactly what the [postgame] conversation was all about,” said Perez. “Making adjustments and being able to put the ball in play when you need to put the ball in play.”

La Mirada now holds a 6-2 advantage against the Gladiators since 2006, outscoring them 41-8. In the three-game sweep, the Matadores had 23 hits to 13 from Gahr. Defensively, Gahr had seven errors, prompting the question if Gerardo Perez felt there was any pressure going into last Thursday’s game.

“Not at all,” he said. “This team is not designed that way. I’ve had teams that prepared and teams that were not prepared and every year is different. The pressure part had nothing to do with it.

“I think they’re very fundamentally sound,” he later said. “I think they capitalize on mistakes. They have a good blend of versatile baseball players that can adapt to any situation. We’re in the process of becoming that. We’re young; we’re younger than they are. We have all sophomores.”

Gahr, which won 14 San Gabriel Valley League titles from 1999-2019 with Perez claiming nine of them, will visit Fullerton High on Friday in the first round of the playoffs.

“Man, Gahr is a great program,” said Russell. “Every year it seems like they just come back and just always have a strong program. Coming into this, we kind of knew what to expect. We were expecting a really good game, and they always give it to us. We knew if we came out flat, they would walk all over us. Just knowing that, I think it put a little fire under everybody and let everyone just play the game.”

On the other side, La Mirada has won at least 20 games for the third straight season and seventh in the last eight seasons, not including the 2020 campaign. After losing to Santa Margarita High last season in the quarterfinals, the Matadores are seeking to go further in the postseason for the first time since 2019.

“That’s even more reason why you don’t ever take these things for granted,” said Zurn. “These boys have been working hard since school started in August. If it’s shared, it’s still a title that goes in school history. That’s a tribute to them because you don’t know what next week is going to bring. We like our chances, but we also know what we’re up against. There are no gimmies in the Division 1 playoffs. I was counting today and there are 17 first place teams in Division 1 and there’s going to be a round where a first place team is on the road against a first place team. That’s tough; there’s not too many divisions like that.”

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