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Pushing for more

Competitive starting pitching drives San Juan Hills baseball as CIF playoffs approach

San Juan HIlls pitchers Austin Plisinski (left), Dane Grant (center) and Drew Nelson (right) pose at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Together they are 17-2 with a 1.29 ERA and 100 strikeouts. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)

Pushing for more

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — San Juan Hills senior pitcher Dane Grant finished throwing 10 pitches.

It was all fastballs and curveballs. He just hoped he threw more strikes than one of his teammates. 

“The loser has to run,” Grant said. “You never feel good after you lose.”

This game between two pitchers was a daily occurrence during the offseason. 

Fast forward to Tuesday, two days before the start of the CIF-Southern Section Div. 4 playoffs against Cajon, the Stallions starting pitching rotation feels confident for a postseason run.

And they credit their coaches teaching them how to compete. 

“Everyone wants to work their butt off to get innings,” Grant said. “The competitiveness has really helped us a lot.”

Grant is just one of three San Juan Hills starting pitchers. 

Alongside senior Austin Plisinski and junior Drew Nelson, the trio has combined for a 1.29 ERA, 100 strikeouts and just 29 walks over 120.1 innings.

“They have done an awesome job,” coach Bret LeVier said. “We preach throwing strikes and that has showed up in our numbers.”

Some could argue that the San Juan Hills’ dominant starting rotation is a big reason why it is coming off a program’s best 20-7 record and first ever league title. 

The Stallions have allowed just 1.78 runs per game down from 4.07 runs per game last season.

But that success didn’t come without some growing pains. 

After consecutive years finishing with .500 records, San Juan Hills concluded the 2023 season with just 12 wins, During that time, Grant and Nelson gained plenty of experience on the mound while Plisinski was moved into the rotation after playing shortstop.

“That was an entirely different team, Plisinski said of last season. “We have a lot of confidence and we want to win. It doesn’t matter how it gets done. We show energy until the final out.”

Plisinski still plays the field on occasion but has made the most of his high school career with success on the pitching mound. 

His 1.72 ERA over 40.2 innings pitched has helped him finish the regular season with a 6-1 record and has held opponents to a sub-.200 batting average.  

Even though Plisinski has been dominant atop the mound, the Stallions depth has given LeVier the opportunity to have options whether it’s creating better matchups or making pitching changes if someone is struggling. 

Plisinski started a game against San Clemente last week to conclude Sea View League play but after throwing just one inning and giving up two runs, LeVier brought in Grant. The end result was a 3-2 win.

“He gave up one hit on the first guy he saw and then kept them hitless after that,” LeVier said. “(This pitching staff) has just been ready to get outs when we have called on them.”

Grant is a “a typical lefty” LeVier said,  figuring out how to put his socks and hat on straight. His calm, relaxed demeanor helps in the dugout but knows when to turn it off when it’s his turn to pitch.

San Juan Hills pitcher Dane Grant (center)throws a bullpen session as pitching coach Chad Hoelker at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Together they are 17-2 with a 1.29 ERA and 100 strikeouts. (Ryan Kuhn, SOCoPrepSports.com)

Grant isn’t the only lefty on the roster but the craftiness that comes with it is shown in his curve and slider. He’s held opponents to just seven earned runs over 31.1 innings. 

“I have a little speed on my fastball but if my curve and slider and working I’l throw those a lot more,”he said. 

While  Plisinski and Grant have pitched well, both senior pitchers said the youngest of the three could have the most momentum as of late. 

Nelson threw a five-hit complete game shutout against San Clemente on April 23 leads the team with seven wins and a 0.59 ERA that ranks eighth among all Orange County pitchers. 

“I throw a lot of strikes, but I found success not trying to strike everyone out,” Nelson said. 

That philosophy not only comes from experience but from Stallion pitching coach Chad Hoelker who has helped pitchers use their individual strengths to help the team’s foundation. 

“Each has certain pitches they throw well but they all have two things in common. They throw strikes and they compete,” Hoelker said. “That what makes a the good foundation.”

Nelson has one more year at San Juan Hills before departing for Brown University and after seeing the programs turnaround over the last year, he knows the importance of this postseason.

The Stallions have never been past the CIF second round, let alone win a championship. Their journey begins with a home game against Cajon and they know they are up for the challenge. 

“They have done a great job continuing the grind. That’s what it takes, right?” LeVier asked. “Playoffs are hard but they have the mentality to be successful.” 

Ryan was born and raised in Dana Point went to Dana Hills High School. He graduated from Sacramento State University with a BA in Journalism. Throughout his career as a sports journalist, he has covered high schools, colleges, and professional teams. After working for multiple newspapers in as many states, he came to the conclusion that what he really wanted was to make sure the high schools in his hometown area got the sports coverage they deserved. Follow him on Twitter @rskuhn

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