Limited to pinch-hitting situations, Scotty Armstrong eventually worked his way into the starting lineup during an otherwise forgettable 2019 season for him and the rest of the East Union baseball team.
Now a senior, Armstrong was poised for a breakout, and he hoped that along with the Lancers' hot start would help boost his stock as a college recruit.
Then he pulled a hamstring, and when Armstrong was ready to return to action the state issued its lockdown order because of coronavirus and the California Interscholastic Federation canceled the remainder of spring sports.
“It was extremely disheartening, to be honest with you,” Armstrong said. “It's the last year of high school and I was putting everything into it. I didn't think too much of it when I first got hurt. I went from not being able to play for a couple games to not playing at all.”
Such has been the luck of Armstrong and the Lancers in the first two years under head coach Gene Ballardo. They won all five of their games this season, outscoring opponents 68-9 and put four of them away in five innings due to the 10-run mercy rule.
“After last season we got the kids in the weight room, and as a coaching staff re-evaluated some of our practice strategies,” Ballardo said. “We came together at the start of this season and everything was clicking.”
A small sample size, sure, but there was something different about this East Union squad that had put its frustrating 2019 behind it. The Lancers finished 2-10 in Valley Oak League play and 10-15 overall, dropping 10 straight at one point.
That doesn't tell the whole story, though. Nine of those losses were decided by three runs or less, and three of them ended in extra innings. Cross-town rival Sierra completed its undefeated run through league with a sweep of East Union but needed to rally for a 2-1 win in Game 1 followed by a 3-2 triumph in 10 innings.
The Lancers had all those close games in 2019 but didn't have any this year — close games or losses.
“There was a drastic change for all of our players,” Armstrong said. “We all came with the same mind set. We never put one player of another player but always worked as a team.
“We went into practices and games and worked super hard. Even people who were not playing were busting their butts to get foul balls or to warm up the left fielder. Everything was to a 'T' and dialed in. It was definitely a big change from last year and it was a nice feeling to go from that to winning.”
Things did seem to fall into place nicely for East Union, which had influx of talented juniors join a small core of seniors along with a pair of underclassmen who made an immediate impact.
A fourth-year varsity player, Christian Nuon didn't get to play a full season with the Lancers — he arrived from Lathrop following his sophomore year and had to sit out about a month's worth of games in 2019 because of California Interscholastic Federation transfer rules.
Ballardo said he is an MVP-type talent, a two-way player who can pitch and play anywhere else on the field, adding that he was “lights out on the mound and electric at the plate” in his all-too-brief senior season. Nuon hit .427 with three homers and 12 RBIs and was 2-0 in two games pitched with a sub-1.00 ERA.
Then there's third-year varsity player Zach White, the team's shortstop who had taken on a leadership role. He was batting .387 with four doubles.
Armstrong, who only got to play in three games, held a .356 average, drove in seven runs and stole five bases. He exploded for six RBIs and two steals in a 3-for-3 effort against Ceres. A first baseman last year, he was moved to left field as a senior.
“One thing the coaching staff noticed about our team this year was that we have a whole infield of shortstops,” Ballardo said. “We have interchangeable players.”
East Union was making noise before getting a chance to play a league game. Another dogfight for the VOL championship and four Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berths was likely with the Lancers entering the royal rumble featuring Central Catholic (6-0), Kimball (5-1), Manteca (5-3-1), Sierra (5-3) and Oakdale (3-1).
They wanted to show they had the goods to at least qualify for the postseason, which the team has only done twice in this decade (2011, 2016).
“There's never a guarantee, but with the team I had this year we feel like we were going to surprise a lot of people,” Ballardo said.
He remains optimistic that the Lancers can compete in 2021. There's much to look forward to despite this lost season, with second-year junior Jaydin Alvarz and Willie Segura among the key returners.
That's little consolation for the six seniors who missed out on a proper farewell to their prep careers. Ballardo said Nuon is likely to continue playing for Chabot College, while White heads to Delta. The future remains uncertain for other seniors like Armstrong, however.
“I feel bad for the seniors, especially because some of them may never play again,” Ballardo said. “For that to be taken away from them is a little bit deflating. I wish them the best of luck in the future, and for us hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”