The West Hills College Coalinga baseball program begins the 2018 season with a new head coach and a roster full of newcomers.
Jason Smith started as the Falcons' new leader on Dec. 1 - and in less than two months built a team roster from just eight players to 25.
All of the recruited players are from California, except four others: two late transfers, a player originally coming to play football, and a pitcher who was a student living in the residence hall.
"I'm really proud of the way our team is taking shape," said Smith, who spent most of his coaching career in Orange County.
"We had a late start, so we are still getting to know each other while catching up with normal training and conditioning that most teams completed in the fall semester. Most of our players can play multiple positions, so they have an opportunity to contribute in different ways. We work really hard and have a good time doing it, so I'm excited for us to start the season."
The Falcons will have only three sophomores heading into the 2018 season.
Smith inherited a program with two pitchers, but zero innings of college experience. Today, the Falcons have 16 potential arms - and although they are young, they will have a lot of options.
"It's still early to determine our set rotation," Smith said.
"We're not a big physical dominant group, but I like the fact that we can throw strikes and we have flexibility to move guys around to fill different roles. We will be able to mix righties and lefties and match-up in situations."
The potential leader of the staff is sophomore LHP Jacob Evangelo (Sierra Pacific HS). Evangelo pitched for the Falcons in 2016, earning a pair of victories and one save in 16 appearances. He recorded 67 strikeouts in 67 innings of work.
He can also play the outfield.
Redshirt freshman RHP Sal Flores (Mendota HS) is expected to see plenty of action, either as a starter or long relief. He will likely be among the team leaders in innings pitched.
Newcomers include right-handers: Richie Salinas (Selma HS), Dylan Gibson (Mountain Park HS), Cody Fierro (Clovis HS), Andrew Castro (Reedley HS), Kyle Schultz (Lowry HS), Delfino Luna (Coalinga HS), Jaime Ramos (Avenal HS), Carson Trigueiro (Caruthers HS) and Gehrig Taylor (Centennial HS).
Freshmen left-handers include: Alan Frausto (Caruthers HS) and Genki Ichikawa (Japan).
For a new program, the Falcons are fortunate to have three solid catchers behind the plate.
One of the team's three sophomores is returner Isaiah Daniel (Kerman). Daniel played in 18 games last season, hitting .275 in a back-up role. He is the projected starter this year; followed by Andrew Di-Giovambattista (Australia), who can also play in the outfield, and Chris Estrada (Liberty HS).
"Isaiah provides us with good sophomore leadership," Smith said. "He has a good understanding of our approach and can block and throw really well."
"Andrew is a great athlete - has a good arm and an overall skill set. Chris has good size, receives the ball well and is a coachable player. Overall, I'm happy with the progress with these three."
Nearly a dozen players have the opportunity to see playing time at not one, but possibly two or three positions in the infield.
At first base, freshmen Kylar Laramie (Clovis East HS), Theo May (Central Valley Christian HS), Steven Guerra (Caruthers HS), and Delfino Luna (Coalinga HS) have been sharing practice reps. Laramie will also see action at third base, May in the outfield, while Guerra and Luna can also pitch and DH.
The most crowded positions are up the middle. Without a true shortstop, the Falcons have several players who can split time there - but also skillled to play second base, third base and in the outfield.
Sophomore Andrew Statler (Sierra Pacific HS) can play three infield positions, but will likely see time in the outfield based on need. Statler will bat near the top of the order, as one of the better hitters on the club.
May, another top hitter, originally came to play first base, but is versatile to play outfield.
Schultz and Hector Munoz (Clovis North) will split time at short and second; while Salinas can play short and third when not pitching. Freshmen Gehrig Taylor, Brandon Larrivee (Sanger HS) and Dean Perez (Sierra Pacific) provide more depth.
Freshman Stevon Beason (Louisville, KY) came with a friend to play for the WHCC championship football program. He has quickly showcased his skill set, along with a competitive spirit.
"We have some good talent and depth in the infield," said Smith, who works with the infielders every day.
"Guys that can hit, produce, and make routine plays will find their way into the lineup."
Statler and May are projected regulars in the outfield, and Di-Giovambattista (also a catcher) will see time in center.
Pitchers Evangelo, Fiero, and Flores should have opportunities as well; Eloy Garcia (Sierra Pacific) and others are also working their way into action.
"We have a solid core of outfielders who have good instincts and natural ability," Smith said.
"Statler and May are unselfishly taking on new roles in the best interest of the team, and they realize they make us stronger. They will see time at positions in the infield, but they give us stability in the outfield. 'Di-Gio has good speed and can be a potential leadoff guy for us."
Smith is prepared for one of his "most challenging, yet rewarding" seasons in his nearly 20 years of coaching. He has a young and eager group of players who have little experience playing at the high level that comes in the CCCAA.
"It's a good group of local talent that will be the foundation of where we ultimately want to position West Hills baseball here in the Valley. We have an opportunity to work hard and compete in the classroom and between the lines. We never take these days together for granted. We teach and preach the right way to play the game, build character and create good habits."
Assistant coaches Eric Graley (pitchers) and Tim Culver (outfielders) bring quality coaching experience and recruiting networks from the Central Valley.
"Both Eric and Tim have been great to work with," said Smith.
"I'm very lucky to have two young and talented coaches by my side who both bring different viewpoints and individual strengths. The players enjoy being around Eric and Tim at practice, and I appreciate their input and respective opinions about the direction of our program. It makes for good energy at practice and in the weightroom. Ultimately, it makes for an enjoyable season we all look forward to."
The Falcons will play six of their first seven games at home. Preseason road trips include games at Monterey Peninsula, Antelope Valley, Ohlone, Modesto, and Mendocino.
The Central Valley Conference season begins on March 6, and a Spring Break doubleheader at Compton is on March 31.