Buchanan Baseball Primed for Central Section Title Defense in 2022

Buchanan senior pitcher Sam Tookoian will be the Bears’ Opening Day starter. He struck out 23 batters in 13.1 innings of work last season. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

The warning comes on the back of a C-train, behind the bullpen, along the third base line at Buchanan’s baseball stadium.

The warning comes within eyesight as you walk into the ballpark from left field. It’s unmissable for the players who use this entrance every practice. 

The warning is a sign that reads:

“If you are not prepared to put the team first, turn around.”

It’s a message not just printed on signs but preached by coaches and practiced by players.

Hunter Jansen, a senior transfer from Clovis North, adopted the methodology rather quickly. During a Thursday practice, two days before the Bears opened their season against West Ranch of Valencia, Jansen ran the bases in a situational hitting drill. On the crack of the bat, Jansen sprinted home, slid hard, and heard a loud ripping noise.

It was his pants. The inseam of his left pant leg tore completely. He jogged over to the dugout, greeted by the laughs and cheers of his teammates, and continued practice with duct tape holding together his left leg.

The newest Bear must’ve seen the sign on the wall as he walked in.

“If a guy in this program is not going to go 110%, they’re not going to have a chance to play,” head coach Brad Fontes said. “It’s all-out from the moment we walk through the gate until the moment we leave. That’s the expectation.”

In his fourth year at the helm, Fontes has a Buchanan ballclub with loads of talent returning from last season. The infield is full of Division-I college baseball commits – third baseman Drew Smith (Oregon), shortstop JP Acosta (Long Beach State), second baseman Jett Ruby (Fresno State), and first baseman Max Bernal (Cal State Bakersfield) are the primary starters. 

The corner infielders each carry a loud bat, and both were counted on last year to produce in the heart of the order. Bernal often batted third and Smith behind him in the cleanup spot. The tandem thrived; Bernal led the team with seven home runs and 37 RBI, and Smith had a team-best .437 average at the plate.

Acosta, the lone junior among three seniors in the starting infield, struck out the fewest times (5) out of any starter last year. He maintained such plate discipline while leading the team with 109 at-bats. Acosta displayed his burgeoning power with a home run against Frontier during a scrimmage this year. 

Ruby rounds out the infield with his steady glove; he’s a rock at second base. The future Bulldog also packs a left-handed swing that translates to sharp line drives. 

“Veteran infield,” Fontes said. “It’s nice to have a group that has been through it, that knows how to communicate, that can keep a double play in order, get the ball to the right guy, and they work very well together.”

Buchanan will miss outgoing catcher Austin Young, a key bat and leader from behind the plate. Replacing Young is a group of guys led by junior Drake Phillips. Senior Cade Twitty will compete for innings, as will freshman Peyton Barsotti

“When we get into our conference with three games a week, we’ll probably have a couple different guys catch,” Fontes said. “[Austin] was special in what he did off the field to allow him to catch three games a week.”

The outfield is spearheaded by UC Irvine-bound senior Evan Wallace, who slides over from left field to center. Justin Inchaurregui has spent a lot of time in left field during practice, as well as Rocky Reyes in right. 

Fontes mentioned Travis Sirwet, who joined the team from wrestling recently, and Jerry Rangel, who has practiced at third base and in the outfield, as other candidates for playing time in the corner outfield positions.

But one more name to remember is Jansen. It will be hard to keep his bat out of the lineup, so Jansen may fill a variety of roles. If Bernal pitches, he can play first base. He can play outfield. He can serve as designated hitter when league play rolls around. However you slice it, Jansen is another power hitter that can boost an already-potent Buchanan lineup.

Last, but certainly not least, the Buchanan pitching staff loses last season’s ace Christian Williams but returns several arms. Sam Tookoian will be the Bears’ Opening Day starter. Primarily out of the bullpen last year, the 6-foot-5 Ole Miss commit worked himself into a starting pitcher and potential ace of the staff over the offseason.

“I think I’ve learned more how to pitch rather than just throwing the ball,” Tookoian said. “More sequence pitches and putting the ball where the hitter can’t hit it. That’s the biggest part, more than velocity. That’s what I’ve worked on a lot.”

Tookoian can sling it, touching high 80’s with his fastball during the scrimmage against Frontier. As the months get warmer, the velocity of his fastball will rise. His four-seamer gets a lot of movement, and the senior right-hander combines that pitch with a curveball that sits in the mid-to-lower 70 mph range.

Senior Austin Watson will be the Bears’ No. 2 starter and start the second half of the Opening Day doubleheader. Colton O’Toole served multiple roles on the mound last season, from high-leverage reliever to starter. Jayden Mandal is another junior right-hander along with O’Toole that can eat innings on the mound in any capacity.

“Having that depth is really nice, you know, that’s going to be huge for us especially with three games a week,” O’Toole said. “I think we got a lot of good guys and whatever coach Fontes needs me to do, whether it be out of the ‘pen again or start on the bump for some games, I could do both.”

Buchanan has been the standard of Central Section baseball for the last decade-plus, a target perpetually on its back because of five Section titles and two national championships won since 2010. 

The 2022 season comes on the heels of the Bears’ latest Central Section title victory in 2021. Many key pieces from that championship run return. So does the relentless drive to now pursue the school’s eighth Section baseball crown.

Fontes and the assistant coaches push the players at practice, two days before Opening Day, instilling the fundamentals of bunt defense, baserunning, and situational hitting. They demand 110% effort and selflessness.

If the players can’t provide either, well, the sign at the front tells them what to do.

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.