Season of high hopes for Placer

Two pitchers with 90-plus mph speed to anchor Placer baseball
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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After 13 years on the baseball diamond, D.J. Rodriguez was determined to make the most of his final season on the diamond with his buddies. So the Placer High senior led offseason workouts and honed his catching skills to become an indispensable part of the Hillmen nine this spring. “I’ve played with almost every one of these guys since before Little League,” Rodriguez said of the Placer team. “The juniors and seniors have mixed together really well. We’re all really close. It’s just a solid team.” Led by a pair of ace pitchers in Ryan Mason and Eddie Vanderdoes, Placer carries high hopes into the season, which begins Thursday at home against River City. The Hillmen finished 14-10 overall in 2011 and 8-7 in the Pioneer Valley League as injuries and a lack of offense caught up with them. A strong group of upperclassmen is determined to put Placer on top of the PVL this spring. “The effort’s there this year,” senior Michael Reale said. “We had some good players last year, but we weren’t there mentally. This year everyone has grown. Even our sophomores play like they are juniors or seniors.” Mason is the club’s ace. The 6-5 senior is headed to Cal to pitch next year. He features a fastball that hits 90-plus mph and also throws a nasty changeup. Mason plans to show off his swing at the plate this season too. He will play third base when he’s not on the mound. Vanderdoes is fielding football scholarship offers from all over the country. On Monday, it was Alabama’s Nick Saban calling to offer the 6-4, 295-pound defensive lineman a full ride. Vanderdoes will unleash his 90-mph fastball and the lefty is sure to make hitters uncomfortable. “Having two guys that can throw 90, that gives us a lot of confidence,” said Rodriguez, who will likely share catching duties with Reale. “It’s a lot of fun to catch them.” Placer’s rotation will also include senior A.J. Sanchez, whom teammates and coaches said has been one of the most improved players on the team. The bullpen is anchored by junior Kodiak Gregerson and senior Zac Hersch. Vanderdoes will play first base when he’s not pitching and junior Jake Lewis will also see time at first. Kyle Wells did not play baseball as a junior, but he returned to the diamond this year and will play second base. Senior Kevin Harcus stepped in at shortstop when junior Tyler Lipsmeyer went down with a torn ACL prior to football season in August. Harcus is also a valuable pitcher. At third base, senior Brady Ranck will spell Mason when he is fully recovered from a foot injury. Senior Brandon Robison gives Hilton options, as he can play all over the infield and even in the outfield, as needed. Hilton said Robison could be a major spark for the offense as a speedy leadoff hitter. Hersch will be a mainstay in the outfield along with Sanchez and senior Kevin Giles. Senior Jake Callahan has been a pleasant surprise in the outfield and junior Nic Baird-Lira also gives Placer depth. Sophomores Todd Valliere and Austin LeBleu are key additions to the Placer lineup. Valliere can play catcher, or in the outfield and might be the fastest player on the team. LeBleu is also a catcher by trade and can really swing the bat. Hilton is encouraged by the team’s dedication in the offeseason. Rodriguez is a prime example. He struggled to throw out runners last season, but he honed his footwork and fundamentals and now baserunners are sure to beware. “His improvement’s been incredible,” Hilton said. Placer beefed up its non-league schedule this season. The Hillmen started 9-2 last year, but the competition was not up to par with a Pioneer Valley League that will be tough again, with Colfax, Lincoln and Bear River looking dangerous. “We had a major push to make our schedule tougher to start the season,” Hilton said. “We’re playing some tough teams like Del Oro, Casa Roble and Nevada Union. We’re excited about the teams coming in here.”