Behind the catcher’s mask and all that armor, Jake Souza is a modern-day knight picked to help lead Sierra High’s conquest.
The burden to bear is heavy, no doubt, but weight, both of the physical and emotional variety, is something the 17-year-old has proven he can carry and move.
The Sierra senior possesses rare talent on the diamond. He is a third-year member of the Timberwolves’ varsity team and the heir apparent to former Valley Oak League Offensive Player of the Year Jake Pruitt, now a catcher at Delta College.
When Souza sits in the crouch, guiding the Timberwolves’ pitching staff through a seven-inning game, or wields a bat, rocking the defense onto their heels, his play speaks loudly.
Off the field, though, his quiet demeanor coupled with a cruel twist of fate left some within the Sierra athletic community worried.
Would it all – the rigors of high school and the expectations of baseball – be too much for a boy learning to become a man without the influence of a mother?
A mother’s love &
coach’s watchful eye
Tina Souza was killed in a car accident when Souza was just 8. Souza, who was in the vehicle along with his sister and cousin, misses her dearly.
“Everything I do I do for her,” he said. “She drives me. Every day I wake up and try to make her proud.”
She’s never far.
Tina Souza’s memory has been preserved in ink on her son’s right shoulder and arm. The tattoo is a portrait of mother cradling son, with roses laid all around. “Those were her favorite thing in the world,” he said.
A quote frames the art: “A mother’s love is a priceless gift, cherished above all of life’s treasures.”
While he believes her death has had no ill-effects on his development, some have observed his struggles closely.
In the past, Sierra coach Jack Thomson has had to keep close tabs on Souza’s grades, afraid the versatile talent might end up ineligible. Today, Souza is an honor roll student on the brink of straight-As.
“Jake was one of those students you had to worry about a little,” Thomson said candidly, “but last term he got three As and a B. So he’s turned things around in the classroom and turned into a real hard worker. He lost his mom, so he’s gone through a lot and he’s done well.”
PE instructor and former baseball coach Richard Boyd had similar concerns about Souza’s attendance and accountability. Boyd saw a fire within Souza; the 17-year-old needed only to let it breath before it flickered out.
In baseball terms, Souza was behind in the count for reasons beyond his control. Statistically, children from single-parent homes produce lower test scores, have a harder time graduating high school and complete fewer years of education.
In that same vein, Souza wasn’t supposed to be much of an athlete, either. He is a self-professed introvert who was always a bit undersized.
“I’ve always been a shy kid. Never did any physical activity and didn’t start playing baseball until I was older. I didn’t start lifting weights until sophomore year of high school,” Souza said. “I was always the shy kid that played baseball, and always the kid that played up in baseball. So I was always the little guy.”
Of all things, CrossFit.
CrossFit’s cross over effect
Souza had never lifted a weight in his life when he discovered coach Boyd’s CrossFit class as a sophomore. Almost instantly, that fire Boyd saw in his young pupil began to pulsate and grow, building in heat and intensity.
“If we can use that as a tool to get him through school and get him his diploma” then we will, Boyd said. “I think he wants to go to JC and play baseball. That’s his passion, so we’ll hang onto that hook (CrossFit) as long as we can to keep him on the right track.”
CrossFit has been scrutinized and celebrated around the globe, picked apart and lauded by fitness experts and wannabes, but in Souza’s world it has been the undisputed difference-maker.
“When you get that confidence, you start feeling bigger and better,” Souza said. “It carries onto the field. I can see it and feel it in myself.”
Sierra High is the only PE Department in the Manteca Unified School District with three CrossFit Level 1 certified instructors: Boyd, part owner of Ripon’s Alpha Omega CrossFit; Nick Hobby, part owner of Manteca’s CrossFit Excel; and Julie Cannon.
In 2007, the school scrubbed its PE Department, incorporating CrossFit into its curriculum. A $20,000 school grant helped transform the weight room into a Games-worthy training facility, complete with double-sided racks, medicine balls and bars, kettle bells and boxes.
If Souza was lacking focus, as Thomson and Boyd suspected, CrossFit has helped him tap into his potential.
He’s blossomed into a classroom leader, dependable and engaged, and his confidence is palpable. The shy kid is a vocal, front-row leader of Sierra’s student cheer section, the Wolf Pack.
With increased agility and core strength, Souza has become a physical force for the baseball team.
He’s able to slide easily to his left and right to block wayward pitches, stand quickly out of the crouch and snap a throw off to second, and he’s got the stamina to sit in the squat for seven innings.
At the plate, he says he’s quicker out of the box on contact, making him a threat to take an extra base.
“The jump, that first step out of the box, is huge. It’s one of the biggest steps there is,” said Souza, who had an eight-game hitting streak to start the season. He’s batting .333 with nine hits and seven runs scored.
“All that quickness, the quick-twitch muscle you need, it helps. CrossFit isn’t just weight lifting, it’s not just to get bigger; it’s to get stronger physically and mentally, and to make you a better athlete.”
Leading his team
Souza begins his final Valley Oak League season with a clear focus.
He’s confident he can help captain the Class of 2015 to its third major varsity title of the year. The football and basketball teams won at least a share of the Valley Oak League title this year.
The Timberwolves are off to an encouraging start, winning eight of their first 12 games, including a two-game sweep of Central Catholic.
“I feel I can (lead this team), but it’s not just me. We have another senior (Ryan Vasquez) who has played four years,” Souza said. “We have a lot of juniors and seniors capable of leading this team. It’s not just me; I don’t have to do it myself.
“When we play as a team I feel we’re unstoppable. Last year’s team, talent-wise, yes, we were better. This year’s team, when we play as a team, I don’t think there’s anyone in the league that will stop us.”
To contact Managing Editor James Burns, email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at jburns1980.