No matter what happens this week, Carlos Herrera’s first year as the East Union varsity baseball coach can fairly be rated as a great success.
The Lancers (15-3, 16-3 overall) are the top-seeded team in the Valley Oak League’s four-team postseason tournament that begins today. They’ll host No. 4 Manteca (11-7, 11-8), while No. 2 Central Catholic (13-5, 14-6) welcomes third-seeded Oakdale (13-5, 14-6). The winners face off on Thursday, as do the losers in the third-place game. The higher-seeded teams get to host.
As with all other sports in the VOL during this pandemic-shortened academic year, there will not be an official champion crowned or a Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. For these Lancers, getting another chance to play is good enough, for now.
“It’s their love for the game,” Herrera said. “I know it’s cliché but they truly love the game. I have a group of Northgate (Little League) kids who all, except for one, have been together since they were 8-9 years old. They like each other, they get along and they like to laugh and have fun.
“It’s a bummer we won’t get to see what they could do in the postseason. Not saying we would have won or anything like that but I would love to go on that ride with them. They have been amazing so far and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys these last three months.”
Herrera is by no means a rookie coach, even if this is his first season in leading a varsity team. He has coached for 24 years, mostly with his alma mater East Union (class of 1996) and at various levels with the baseball and football programs. He headed the freshman baseball team from 2005-13 and JV from 2014-20.
Herrera was promoted in October. Gene Ballardo, a 1994 EU grad, stepped down last summer after the onset of the coronavirus cut the spring season short. Dan Triglia had coached the team from 2000-18.
Herrera, who served as defensive coordinator the varsity football team this season, said that in 20-plus years leading a varsity squad in any sport was “never an aspiration” until the months leading up to Ballardo’s departure.
“I told (wife) Chelsea that if Gene were to ever leave I would apply for the East Union job, but I didn’t think that would be for another 5-6 or maybe 10 years. The stars just aligned. It was the right spot and right time.”
Ballardo’s 2020 squad started 5-0 did not have the opportunity to prove itself in the VOL. Spearheaded by seniors such as Willie Segura (middle infielder) and Austin Orr (third baseman) who are part of a deep pitching staff, Herrera’s 2021 bunch is finishing what their predecessors started.
“We didn’t lose too many seniors from last year and we’re not losing very many senior starters this year,” Herrera said. “These juniors, I’ve coached for three years now. The transition has been so smooth because coming in they already knew what I expected and they knew my rules. Coach Ballardo had some of the same values as far as that goes, so it made it an even easier transition.”
Familiarity has bred success for the Lancers, but it may have bred contempt across town from their upcoming opponent. Rival Manteca won its final three games, including one over Oakdale, to qualify for the tournament but is likely eager to avenge the two losses against East Union.
The Lancers won the first regular-season meeting 8-4, getting a pitching gem from Benny Slaughter after a rocky start in which both teams scored three runs in the first inning. Game 2 was even more baffling for the Buffs, who dropped a 2-0 decision despite ace pitcher Zach Todd tossing a no-hitter.
“Their pitcher absolutely dealt and we were the beneficiary of some miscues and bounces that went our way,” Herrera said. “It could have easily went the other way. Todd was lights out and we’re expecting to see that again.”
Having been around for as long as he has, Herrera knows better than to overlook anyone whether or not it’s a rival school, adding that he and assistant Kris Hensley have been “exhausted” after much of their games this season.
“It’s the VOL,” he said. “There are no easy games or free passes. You have to earn everything in this league.”
At this point next year, he’s hoping they can have a shot at earning more. Herrera will bring up players from a JV squad that tied Oakdale for the top spot in the standings, so there will be an expectation for East Union to contend when normalcy and championships return.
“Being one of the only sports that got a full league season (in the VOL) was awesome after everything that was lost last year,” Herrera said. “But I would have loved to see them get the opportunity to play in the Section playoffs. We get a taste of it this week, which we’re excited about, but if I can give anything to these seniors it would be the experience of a postseason run.”
VOL BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
(4) Manteca at (1) East Union, 4 p.m.
(3) Oakdale at (2) Central Catholic, 4 p.m.