Matt Whisenant hasn’t been with the La Cañada High School baseball program very long, but the former Major League Baseball pitcher and the Spartans are beginning to see the fruits of their labor.
“We’ve been working really hard since August,” said Whisenant, who took over as head baseball coach last June. “I know it’s a big adjustment for the kids because they’re getting a whole new coaching staff, but they’ve acclimated well. We’ve been working on a whole lot of things that are new to them, and trying to get them to have a positive outlook and focus on the process of preparing for the season. It’s been fun.”
The Spartans bounced back from a season-opening loss to Walnut with victories over Arcadia, 6-3, and Victor Valley of Victorville, 3-0. Both teams compete in a higher division than La Cañada, which was placed in CIF-Southern Section Division 5.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for La Cañada, which took on La Salle on Wednesday and hits the road to face Maranatha on Saturday. The difficult opponents were handpicked by Whisenant, who wants to challenge his group early in the season to ready the players for Rio Hondo League play.
“We have played some schools that have good reputations and are in higher divisions and winning,” Whisenant said. “We’re doing it to give them confidence and to break down the mental part of the game, which is what we’ve been stressing. When you play against those tougher teams and you see yourself competing, it gives you confidence. I think that’s what this group of kids was lacking.”
The Spartans have shown confidence on the mound, but that didn’t come as a surprise to Whisenant, who inherited a talented, balanced group of pitchers.
“There’s no question that our strength is our pitching depth,” said Whisenant, who had a record of 134-104-1 in nine seasons as head coach of Sun Valley Village Christian prior to taking the LCHS job. “We have a lot of capable arms. We have kids who have pitched at the varsity level, but we also have younger kids who are starting to develop like Connor Buchanan, Ryan Graves and Zach Feehan, who are all sophomores, getting key experience and growing in front of us.”
La Cañada’s struggles in the past have come in the batter’s box with an average of three runs per contest the last two seasons. When Whisenant took over the program, one of his goals was to change the Spartans’ mindset going into an at-bat.
“Kids get caught up too much with having a hit as a quality at-bat,” Whisenant said. “I wanted to break that down as much as possible and redefine a quality at-bat. Whether it was a walk, an eight-pitch at-bat or moving over a guy to third base, I think having that mindset frees them up a bit and takes off pressure. When you can give them more opportunities to get more quality at-bats, it allows them to focus on finding a way to contribute. The bottom line is that runs win games, not hits.”
With two consecutive victories and noticeable development in the batter’s box, the Spartans buying into the Whisenant’s system, and he’s had help from experienced captains such as Matthew Sox.
“When you talk about guys that are leaders, Matt Sox falls in that category,” he said. “He’s a dependable guy on the mound with varsity experience against tougher teams, and he is also very disciplined at the plate. He’s a dependable No. 3 hitter, and has a lot of confidence when at shortstop.”
The other team captains, Kyle Mysliviec, Graham Massimino and Tristan Kalnins, have also set a tone that Whisenant hopes rubs off on a team that includes five juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen.
“That kind of leadership has been nice because it has a big effect with the other guys,” Whisenant said. “They see a leader who also works hard in practice and enjoys the process. They come in every day, show up and work toward what they need to focus on and get prepared for each game.”
The Spartans will travel to Hacienda Heights to take on Wilson in a nonleague game on Tuesday, March 14, at 3:15 p.m. Whisenant’s squad will open Rio Hondo League play at South Pasadena on Wednesday, March 22, at 3:30 p.m. For updates on the team, check out its Twitter handle @LCHSbsball.