By JONAMAR JACINTO
Penciled in at shortstop and pitcher, Jacob Souza threw Sierra coaches a curveball before the start of his senior season.
Head coach Jack Thomson figured Souza — an All-Valley Oak League first-team second baseman in 2014 — was the obvious replacement for standout shortstop Dakota Conners, one of just nine high school players nationwide to receive the Gold Glove Award two years ago.
Souza approached Thomson with a different plan.
“Jake Pruitt was the catcher from his sophomore year until his senior year, and with him leaving we had no one returning to fill that spot,” Souza said. “I was aware of the sophomores we had coming up and knew a lot of them could play the infield at an elite level, so I went up to coach and told him I can fit in at that position.”
It wasn’t a smooth transition at the start, he admits, but it paid off well in the end for Souza and the Timberwolves. He is the Manteca Bulletin All-Area Baseball MVP after leading Sierra to its first VOL championship since 2001.
Souza’s .391 batting average, 27 hits, 22 runs and four triples were all team-highs and he was also second on the club with 17 RBIs. Defensively, he committed just two errors (.985 fielding percentage), allowed six passed balls and threw out 68.4 percent of base stealers (6 of 13). In 14 league contests, Souza hit .417, sported a 1.000 fielding percentage and was voted MVP of the VOL.
“Tremendous honor,” Souza said. “I did not even expect that. Even after coach Thomson texted me I called all the other coaches asking if it was real. I didn’t think I was worthy with all the great players we have in the league.
“All year I didn’t look at my stats at all, all I cared about was winning. MVP just so happen to come along with it.”
Souza was a catcher for much of his youth, but in high school he split time at third base while playing for the sophomore squad as a freshman. He was elevated to the varsity the following year and played exclusively at second. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder did not mind the shifting around. His dad, Mark, helped him prepare for all positions.
“I feel like it’s a great attribute to be able to play every position, not just at an average level but to excel at an elite level,” he said. “When I was young my dad always worked with me and said, ‘You gotta be able to play anywhere.’ I don’t know where I’ll end up playing in college. (Modesto Junior College coaches) wants me to see me at third, but I’m getting reps at second, too. Who knows? I may end up in the outfield.”
Getting reacquainted at catcher wasn’t easy, but his familiarity with senior pitchers Leo Soto, Jakob Gallagher and Ryan Vasquez aided the in transition.
“It was very difficult because the two positions are very different,” Souza said. “It really didn’t feel second nature; it took some time to get back into it.
“I also felt like I struggled offensively at the beginning of the year because I was trying too much to get better defensively that I didn’t focus on offense,” he added. “Coach Thomson talked to me about losing confidence and needing to go back to the basics. It all worked out and I got my confidence back.”
Souza contributed at least one hit in 20 of the 23 games he played, but it wasn’t until the middle of league that he truly felt comfortable. He ended the year on a 10-game hitting streak, going 16 for 31 (.516 average) with 11 of RBIs and 12 runs during that stretch.
Sierra finished 12-2 in league for a second straight year, only this time it went into the postseason with the VOL championship in hand. In 2014, the Buffaloes forced a winner-take-all contest in the regular-season finale with rival Manteca, which ended up celebrating its title run on Sierra’s field.
“Last year we were one game away from a league championship and one game away from playing for a section title,” Souza said. “Even though we lost Dakota and Pruitt, we knew we had a chance to do it this year. Before the season started Ryan Vasquez and I pulled our teammates together and we put in work in the weight room. We all had one goal in mind and we achieved our goal.”
Sierra again came up short of playing for a section title. The Timberwolves were again eliminated in the semifinals of the Sac-Joaquin Section III playoffs (they were in Division IV last year). Eleventh-seeded Yuba City swept No. 2 Sierra in the best-of-three series by a resounding 26-7 margin and went on to capture the banner.
“It was still an amazing season,” Souza said. “I know the score didn’t show it, but I felt like we did really well in the playoffs. At least we got to win a league title and I know that hadn’t happened in a while. I never saw Coach Thomson happier.”