by Editor, Rick Cabral

  How Teams Prepare For
the Pressure-Packed Playoffs

The high school playoffs are an exciting time and provide an excellent chance to view the best teams in the area.  

Play began with several "out-bracket" games on Monday, but all seven divisions begin in earnest on Thursday (see schedule).

We surveyed a handful of coaches from the local area to learn what they do to prepare for the upcoming playoffs.  

The area's number-one team, Elk Grove (22-5) will practice tonight under the lights to simulate game conditions tomorrow evening when they open their Division I North title against Vacaville at American River College. Aside from that change Coach Jeff Carlson says they'll focus on fundamentals, covering bunts, pick-off plays, and most especially PFP--pitcher's fielding practice, areas he feels his team needs some work.

In his 11 years at the helm of the Thundering Herd, Carlson's teams have won four D-1 section championships, including three straight from 2005-2007.

In the case of the Rocklin Thunder (17-9), winners of three D-2 section championship in the past four years, the routine remains the same as during the year. Coach Roc Murray says "We just continue with our regular practice stuff." But their regular stuff begins with a season-long effort to improve each and every practice. Murray has guided the Rocklin baseball program since relocating from the Bay Area in 1994. 

Murray, who grew up and coached in the highly-competitive Southern California area, has used the one-week layoff to stress fundamentals, but he also worked on game situations with live pitching. Murray says he usually has eight or nine pitchers on his teams, which provides the luxury of game-testing his players in practice. If the Thunder are working on hitting situations, batters are required to describe their objective at the plate. Likewise for the infielders in a defensive scrimmage.  

Rocklin, the #1 Sierra Foothill League seed, faces Bella Vista Thursday at Sacramento City College. 

Rob Rinaldi, head coach at Pleasant Grove (20-7) since it opened in 2006, approaches the one-week layoff similarly. He believes it starts in the regular season, practicing situations so that when his team reaches the playoffs, they're prepared. 

Rinaldi, however, says the makeup of each team is different, and provides him the cue for how to handle the group. "Some teams are peaking, they're hungry, and you can do just about anything," he notes. "Some teams are limping in, it's been a long season, you've got to find a way to get or keep them motivated. It varies from team to team, year to year." 

This year, Rinaldi found a new way to sharpen his team's focus during the layoff by playing a makeup game against Davis High. Davis is coached by his long-time friend and former Davis High alumnus, Dan Ariola. Rinaldi, who graduated from that school in 1982, is two years younger than Ariola, but both began coaching at the junior varsity level in the same year (Rinaldi at Woodland and Ariola at Davis). The two have enjoyed a friendly rivalry ever since. The makeup game last week was won by Davis 9-5, but Rinaldi was happy to provide his players with a tuneup contest. Rinaldi won the D-1 section championship in 1992, his first year at Woodland.

McClatchy (21-5) is the Metro League's top seed this year and head coach Mike De Necochea says his kids are chomping at the bit to begin playoff activity. In the interim, his squad has been fine tuning their defense in game situations and focusing on the short game and base running. One change he implemented is lessening the batting practice. McClatchy will play Del Campo on Thursday. McClatch's only section championship (D-1) came in 1998.

The dean of area high school coaches—Guy Anderson of Cordova High School—faces a different situation than most of his colleagues. After a long draught form the postseason Cordova (16-11) this year qualified for the playoffs by finishing third in the CAL. Consequently, the Lancers drew an out-bracket game Tuesday against Rodriguez of Fairfield. The contest was rained out after four innings of play, and tomorrow Cordova returns to Fairfield to finish the game.  

For Anderson, the challenge of a layoff took a back seat to the rain delay. The wizened veteran, pulled out his bag of tricks from his shed and took the Cordova team indoors to stay sharp. Always looking for a motivational edge, Anderson gives his players brand new baseballs to warm up with inside the gym.

Another thing: he made up T-Shirts commemorating Cordova's entry into the section playoffs. "This is something special for them. Psychologically this helps them a bit." 

Anderson, who has guided the Lancer program to four Sac-Joaquin Section Division I titles since taking over in 1971, is happy his club has finally made it back to the playoffs. "Our program has worked hard to get there. It's frosting on the cake. But that's the fun part."  

He says regardless of the outcome, Cordova players will build on the experience and be better prepared next year should they return to the pressure of playoff baseball. 

Carlson believes his schedule and the level of competition help prepare his team for the pressures awaiting the area's top team in the Division I playoffs. Each year at the Easter Break, Elk Grove journeys to San Diego to compete in one of the West Coast's top tournaments, tempering the steel of his young ballplayers (Several local schools now do the same, including Rocklin).

Murray attempts to address playoff pressure at the start of the season by finding ways for his players to establish linkages, which form bonds among the players; something as simple as throwing the ball "around the horn" after an out. "It's way more about linking the infielders than throwing the ball to somebody else. It links your team," Murray says.

During the layoff week, Rinaldi resorts to "story time" where he brings in former players to address the present club about their past successes and failures during the playoffs. "We try to get them in the right mental state, where they're excited, but not too anxious," says the coach who guided past Woodland teams to the playoffs and has continued that tradition at Pleasant Grove. 

"It's an exciting time of year. It's what you work for and a lot of fun," Rinaldi relates. "It's a six-game season now." 

Murray adds, "We want to the best team on the last day of the season." 

Same goal; different ways of getting there. 

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Uploaded 05/18/11
All contents © Rick Cabral 2011