SHOWDOWN: CULVER VS. SANTA MONICA
Mike Netzel with a mighty swing
By Fred Altieri
The time is now for Culver City High baseball 2014 as it prepares for its annual two-game Ocean League series with archrival Santa Monica High in the league's final week of play.
Once again the league championship will go to the victor as it has been for the greater part of the past two decades-plus. Only this time the Centaurs, with a current 7-1 league record, need to win both games as they trail the Vikings, undefeated at 8-0, by 1/2 game in the standings.
Culver was fine-tuning its operation as the team carpooled to Sherman Oaks last Friday for a very rare night game against Notre Dame High on an uncommonly cool, breezy and clear May evening.
Again, it was an impressive performance by the Centaur pitching staff combined with fine defensive plays before falling in extra innings, 3-1, when the last pitch cleared the left field wall in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The two-run walk-off home run by the Knights accentuated the season-long Achilles' heel for the Centaurs: the failure to take advantage of scoring opportunities. This time the bases were loaded with one out in the top of the same eighth before another hard hit ball up the middle was converted into a rally-killing double play. Nonetheless, Culver is vying for another league title and has finished in first or second place for at least the past 10 years.
The fact that the Centaurs have been playing the greater part of the season without their five seniors, four whom are currently unable to play due to injury is a testament to the program's resiliency and prioritized pitching and defensive structure.
Two-time All-Ocean League shortstop Darian Sylvester is one of those seniors who will return to the lineup against Santa Monica as a designated hitter.
Sylvester, a three-year veteran of this classic annual Westside baseball rivalry, gave his pre-series thoughts: "The SaMo series is a rivalry. A heated rivalry. They talk smack. We talk smack. It's kind of like a USC / UCLA type of thing. It's intense. Fans show up. Smack talk goes on during the games. It always comes down to us two where we're playing for the Ocean League championship."
He also knows what it's going to take to beat the Vikings: "What we do best is playing small ball, playing catch, getting that bunt down. That's what we've been practicing. We know we're not going to get 10, 15 hits in the game. We know their pitcher is good so we're going to work with what we know: bunting for base hits, hit and runs, those type of situations."
Sylvester prepared the entire off-season to help lead the Centaurs in his final year with the team but his plans were altered by his unexpected injury: "Two months ago I was rounding first base and I broke down really hard. I kind of felt my hip / groin area. It started aching. And because I have a high pain I played through it. But I was playing hurt. During the second Lawndale game it got to where I couldn't move my leg. It felt like it was locked up. Coach took me out."
His continued efforts to play while rehabilitating were met with resistance from his own body: "Since then I've been resting, DH'ing here and there. At the Anaheim tournament I did play one game and against Beverly Hills I actually played two games. I knew that Coach needed me and that's what I was shooting for, to get back for Beverly Hills but I wasn't ready for it. The second game is probably when I tore my labrum."
But Sylvester realizes it's been an opportunity to grow: "It's been frustrating but I've learned more than I've learned in my four years at this school because up to this point I've just been a baseball player. I've been an athlete. But now, I'm having to evaluate myself as an individual. I'm more than just an athlete. Now I'm a student and a good person. It's been a process but it's been good."
A Culver Celebration
Along with fellow seniors and team leaders, Jake Wells and Daniel Hennessy, the three comprise a good percentage of the team's hitting power. Their absence from the lineup has hindered the offense that was so prevalent last season when they established new team benchmarks: "This whole season we haven't been hitting as well as we could have been. We've embraced the fact that we aren't going to bet getting 10 to 12 hits, hitting jacks like last year. We had 14 home runs last year. That's never happened here at Culver City High School."
Regardless, Sylvester knows head coach Rick Prieto will have the Centaurs ready to contain the highly-ranked Vikings this week: "One thing that Coach has forced upon us is: good pitching, good defense wins ball games and championships for that matter. The pitchers work extremely hard, running their poles, running cross-country. Coach makes sure they do that. And defense: we've been practicing defense since the beginning. That's the backbone of our program."