By Ray Hamill — It’s been a challenging spring at the plate for much of the H-DNL, facing off against what is arguably one of the greatest classes of pitchers we’ve ever seen on the North Coast.
It’s certainly one of the deepest we’ve seen, with at least six or seven players who would be legitimate MVPs in any year.
“I think we’ve always had some good arms in Humboldt County, I just don’t think we’ve ever seen this many at once,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said.
Scoring is down throughout the league, and while many observers were wondering if that had to do with a lack of good hitting, many are now beginning to believe it has more to do with the quality of pitching they’ve been facing in league play.
“I would say it has something to do with it,” McKinleyville head coach Scott St. John said. “It’s been a while since there’s been that many good pitchers in the league.”
Picking who might be the best of this group is as challenging as facing any of them, with a number of MVP candidates in both the Big 5 and Little 4.
Caleb Ruiz of St. Bernard’s has been dominant for much of the spring and a player Tomlin described as the best pitcher in the county at the outset of the season.
On the other hand, he might not even be the best pitcher in the Little 4, with South Fork’s CJ Van Meter and Ferndale’s Landon Gomes equally impressive.
In the Big 5, the field is just as deep.
Returning league MVP David Vagle of Eureka has been dominant, as has the Arcata duo of Merick Sears and Jaden Gorge, as well as McKinleyville’s Cameron Saso, who is arguably the most improved of the bunch this season.
In addition, Eureka’s Kalebh Hill and Brady Munson are each also enjoying outstanding seasons.
There are others too, like Austin Hughes of Ferndale and McKinleyville’s Lance Lally and Kyler Carr, as well as the younger generation of stars already playing like veterans, McKinleyville’s Corbin Eichin and St. Bernard’s Bode Joyner and Nick Dugan.
So who’s the best of the best?
Who would you want if you had to choose one of them for one game?
“It depends on what team I’m facing,” Andersen said. “They all have things they do well.”
Ruiz has been particularly impressive, with an ERA of 0.41 and a remarkable 105 strikeouts in 51.2 innings.
“He’s faced 198 batters and he’s struck out 105 of them,” Tomlin said. “That’s unheard of.”
Vagle has played far less frequently than any of the others, appearing in just 28.2 innings, but has been extremely effective with an ERA of 0.97 going into Thursday’s game against Arcata, which he won with a shutout.
Van Meter, meanwhile, has the most impressive ERA of them all, an unreal 0.15, albeit against some lesser competition.
The South Fork senior is 6-1.
Also in the Little 4, Gomes has been instrumental for the Ferndale Wildcats and without doubt one of the best all-around players in the area.
“When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody,” Andersen said.
Sears missed all of last season though injury but has returned with a bang this spring, and is revered by his opponents as much as any pitcher in the area.
“I would say Merick Sears is the best pitcher that’s thrown against us so far,” St. John said, adding that Ruiz is “definitely up there.”
Sears is in good company.
“Arcata really has two great pitchers,” Tomlin said. “You could put Jaden Gorge in that group, he’s that good.”
And so too is Saso, who at least one coach feels is the best around.
“I’ve got to go with my guy,” St. John said. “I see him every day and he’s one of the best.”
Saso is 6-0 this season with an ERA of 0.86, while striking out 54 in 40.2 innings, and he has been instrumental in the Panthers run toward a first league title in more than a decade.
Under the radar
Others too have impressed.
Hughes, according to his coach, has gone “under the radar” with the Wildcats, but has been one of the most reliable pitchers in the area over the past two years, going 13-2, including 6-0 this season.
Munson, meanwhile, was “lights out for us” on the way to the American Legion state championship game last summer, according to Tomlin.
Hill also has evolved into a top-threat pitcher, and another standout who is under the radar this season with an ERA of 1.88, while Lally has been Mr. Consistent for McKinleyville and arguably the best relief pitcher in the area this spring, going 4-0 with three saves in nine appearances, eight of them out of the bullpen.
“I think that right now there’s a deep group of young and old pitchers,” Arcata head coach Troy Ghisetti said. “They’re not all seniors.”
Of the group, Gomes, Saso and Sears are still just juniors, while Eichin and Joyner are sophomores, and Dugan a freshman.
“Nick Dugan is going to be something amazing,” Tomlin said.
Most of these players will be teammates this summer on the Humboldt Eagles 19U team, having come up through the ranks together and made it to two consecutive state championships at the U17 level the past two seasons.
And Eagles head coach Tomlin will have his pick of arms for the summer season.
“The 19U Eagles this summer might be the best team ever to come out of the county,” Tomlin said.
The team’s rotation will include Van Meter, Gomes, Ruiz, Sears, Munson, Hill, Gorge, Joyner and Saso, an incredible lineup.
But that’s not all.
Last year’s Little 4 MVP Garrison Finck, who is playing at Cal State East Bay and could be better than any of the others, will also join the team for the summer.