It’s not often that a two-time defending league champion finds itself laying in the weeds as an underdog, but that’s exactly where Long Beach Poly finds itself–and it’s right where sixth-year head coach Brent Lavoie wants them to be.
“We kind of like that,” said Lavoie with a grin. “We’re really excited about the opportunity. I like the fact that the other teams are thinking, ‘They lost all their dudes, who do they have?’ That’s a good mindset for others to have of us. But on this field and in that locker room, the guys walking around here, in their minds they truly believe they’re going to three-peat.”
The Jackrabbits won a few classic games against Millikan last season on their way to the title, but it was the Rams who enjoyed the playoff success. After Poly fell to a strong Gahr program in the first round of the CIF-SS Division 2 playoffs, it was Millikan that brought a Division 3 title back to Long Beach. The Rams’ playoff success quickly stole the spotlight from Poly’s accomplishment in the regular season, and the current group of Jackrabbits is looking to snatch it right back.
One key name returning to the lineup is senior Ryan Skjonsby, who was a stalwart at first base last season with a dangerous lefty bat in the middle of the order. He’ll again be asked to provide needed pop in the lineup and drive in runs, but he’ll also be given the chance to start games on the mound and pitch some crucial innings for the Jackrabbits this year.
“I just want to do the best I can to help this team win,” said Skjonsby. “Whether that’s pitching, hitting, whatever, I just want to do the best that I can. As far as the team, we want to win a Moore League championship for the third time, so anything less than that we’re not going to be satisfied.”
After winning consecutive league titles for the first time in school history, the Jackrabbits said farewell to a terrific senior class that featured six All-Moore League selections. That graduating group included Moore League Player of the Year Edgar Rosales, top pitchers Elias Torres and Liam Alpern, plus captain Troy Criss, clutch center fielder Kenny Barnabee and reliable catcher Bobby Ramirez.
That means the Jackrabbits’ lineup card will look a lot different in 2022, making them a team that’s tough to predict and perhaps easy to overlook.
“It definitely is a different team,” said junior shortstop Lucas Scott, who was the starting second baseman last season. “But I think our upperclassmen really show a lot of key leadership. We have very talented underclassmen on varsity and I think we set a pretty good example for them. I think the back-to-back Moore League titles is a good thing to show everyone that this is a working, strong program.”
In addition to Skjonsby and Scott, the corner outfield spots will be manned by guys who saw a good amount of playing time last season. Senior Diego Falencik will see time out in left while Andrew Clavel mans right field. Senior Raymond Jenkins steps into the center field role and senior Sebastian Lebario will be in the outfield mix as well, while also utilizing his great speed on the basepaths. In order for the Jackrabbits to remain atop the league, they’ll need former role players to blossom into key contributors in the season ahead.
“I’m very excited, especially because this year is going to be in Blair Field, we get to be under the lights and coming up clutch at any moment,” Lebario said. “I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun. Last year the senior class came in clutch so many times, I’m ready to be that guy this year.”
The infield will feature some key newcomers like sophomore Max Pemberton who will start at third base. The second base spot will come down to a battle between sophomore Nate Berumen and junior Yahir Torres. Senior Erik Gonzalez will step in behind the plate.
The offensive approach may look a little different for the Jackrabbits this year, with a greater emphasis on contact, speed and baserunning. Without the luxury of a deep, experienced lineup of power bats, Lavoie could rely on some creativity this year.
“We’re going to have to take some chances at times and execution is going to be huge,” Lavoie explained. “We call it the power of one, the power of one run can be quite significant … I think we’ll do a good job of manufacturing and being aggressive on the bases. We’re gonna have to do that. Maybe we lost a little pop in the sticks from the past, but we’ve got some guys that can put the ball in play and run and that puts pressure on the defense to execute well. The last couple years we just had the luxury of letting those guys swing it.”
On the mound, Poly will have a new look with Skjonsby and junior righty Brayden Martineau competing for the top spot in the rotation. Senior lefty Jackson Haberland will be a strike-throwing lefty out the bullpen.
While it may be easy for other top teams to overlook these new-look Jackrabbits, the expectations at 1600 Atlantic remain high. The program has had historic success against the rest of the Moore League the past few seasons, and the returning players putting on the green & gold have the same lofty aspirations as before.
“The joke is, everybody in the league’s got their dude back except us,” Lavoie said. “But the cool thing is, nobody knows who our dude is, right? And who we’re gonna roll out next. But the expectation with these guys is, we’re on top of the mountain, the trophy has been here for a while–let’s keep it here. We’ve got guys walking around talking about a three-peat, and we don’t say that arrogantly, and it’s not easy to say that, but we’ve got guys that truly believe.”
Projected Starting Lineup:
C – Erik Gonzalez (Sr.)
1B – Ryan Skjonsby (Sr.) / Mike Moku (Sr.) / Sebastian Byrd (Jr.)
2B – Nate Berumen (So.) / Yahir Torres (Jr.)
SS – Lucas Scott (Jr.)
3B – Max Pemberton (So.)
LF – Diego Falencik (Sr.) / Sebastian Lebario (Sr.)
CF – Raymond Jenkins (Sr.)
RF – Andrew Clavel (Sr.)
DH – Jordan Kramer (Sr.)
UTIL – Jae Simon (Jr.)
P – Skjonsby / Brayden Martineau (Jr.) / Jackson Haberland (Sr.)