Just like football, the Lakewood Lancers and Wilson Bruins share parallel story lines going into this condensed league schedule as both classic baseball rivals are still trying to put it all together. Lakewood started the season by losing six of its first nine games.
“We’re just trying to find out the personalty of this team,” Lakewood’s 38-year coach Spud O’Neil said. “The kids are a little frustrated but I’m not because I’m still putting the puzzle together. I asked the kids the other day, ‘How many of you have been on a championship team at the lower level here at Lakewood?’ Not one hand went up. I said, ‘That’s why I’m here. I’m going to teach you how to become a champion.’”
O’Neil, 74, just returned to the dugout after sequestering for a year due to COVID-19 concerns. He returned to Lakewood practice on March 1 where longtime assistant coach John Yakel had been running things.
“I was absolutely going crazy,” O’Neil said of missing practice and tryouts. “(Yakel) did a great job and is a wonderful coach. He would come over for a social distanced happy hour while I was stuck at home. He kept everything intact and made the schedule for us. He’s amazing.”
O’Neil put aside his home projects, like making picture books for old Lakewood teams and sending his grandchildren drawings, to return to the field where he said he got a mixed reaction from his players.
“I have a COVID beard, so that’s different, and some of the kids have long hair, which I never would’ve allowed in the old days,” O’Neil said. “But it is what it is. I’m not going to change them now. I’m just so happy to be out on the field again. I feel like it’s 1970 again coaching at St. Anthony.”
O’Neil is one win away from becoming the third California high school baseball coach to reach 900 wins, and he thinks his team has the talent to grab its first league title since 2017.
“From the first day of March to today we’re a completely different team and we’ve gotten better,” O’Neil said. “We’ll be legit. We don’t have a good record but we’ve been scoring runs. We’re averaging six runs a game, and when we get Anthony Eyanson back, we’ll be even better. He’s our best player.”
Eyanson is currently serving as the Lakewood football quarterback who gets to baseball practice when he can. The athletic junior will pitch and play left field or shortstop when he comes back to be a full-time baseball player.
“He’s the best pitcher we have but he’s only pitched two innings,” O’Neil said. “If he was here since the beginning, we’d be 7-1. He has everything (on the mound) and he’s pretty darn good.”
Eyanson will only add to a very strong pitching staff that has been led by Cal State Northridge commit Diego Gutierrez. He played shortstop last year and O’Neil said he’s very competitive.
“Without Anthony it’s hard to win consistently and having him gives us more options defensively and in the lineup,” Gutierrez said. “People say we aren’t going to do damage in the Moore League but I disagree. We’re going to compete, win every inning and hopefully put some eyes on Lakewood this year.”
Senior Wyatt Coats is also a reliable and experienced arm. New faces Braden Cordero and Logan Mebane have been innings eaters out of the bullpen.
Senior center fielder Blake Jones is back to hit leadoff again this year. He’s improved his already elite speed and is hitting over .300 this season. Senior Eric Yuriar is in right field to round out a very good defensive outfield.
Junior Jared Stephenson has stepped up to win the job at first base, and has been hitting in the heart of the order. Junior James Provencio will join him on the right side at second base. Junior Nohea Mapu will be on the left side of the infield at third base or shortstop.
Behind the plate, junior Kane Yonamine and senior Gaberiel Vazquez have been sharing time catching the talented pitching staff.
“We’re not as strong a league as we’ve been in the past,” O’Neil said. “Our goal is to get back to Division 1, but you have to beat Division 1 teams to do that.”