Most every good team has talent throughout its roster — but such teams usually have one player they will look to when times are difficult.
For the St. Helena High baseball team, that person was shortstop/pitcher Richard Hoppe. The 5-foot-11, 155-pounder might not have the look that makes scouts drool but he displayed the type of strength that truly mattered — mental toughness.
“He was our rock,” Saints head coach Darrell Quirici said. “I think our whole coaching staff felt that way. We went into many games knowing they were going to be tight but he was like that security blanket where if we get into trouble, we could turn to him. You knew if things got tight, we could go to him. He did it without fail.”
That resolve earned him Player of the Year honors on the Register’s All-Napa County baseball team.
The 2013 Saints enjoyed a season that put them into the annals of school history.
St. Helena baseball, which experienced many lean years from 1982-2009, went 20-6 in 2013. The 20 wins represented a school record. The Saints also went 14-0 in North Central League I play and recorded their first CIF North Coast Section Div. IV playoff win since 1978.
“It was very rewarding, especially going back to my freshman year when I was brought up to varsity (by then-head coach Brandon Farrell),” Hoppe said. “We had a few others as well. We grew from that experience.”
Hoppe was the hub of the Saints’ wheel. As the No. 3 hitter, he batted .361 with a .473 on-base percentage, 22 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and 14 runs scored.
Hoppe’s pitching contribution became much bigger than anticipated. At the start of the season, the Saints expected to have a strong 1-2 starting rotation of Johnny Wignall and Jimmy Figueroa, but the pair was only healthy for but a few games all season.
“At the beginning of the year, I thought he’d be our No. 4 guy and get some innings here and there but by circumstances out of our control, he became ‘the guy,’” Quirici said.
Hoppe came through in a huge way, compiling 49 innings, a 6-1 record, 0.29 ERA, and a 0.98 WHIP.
“(Saints pitching coach) Jack McMahon really helped me a lot as far as keeping the ball down and mixing up my speeds,” Hoppe said. “I don’t throw the hardest but I learned how to change my arm angle and drop down to go with a sidearm or over the top. I learned how to keep hitters off balance.”
Quirici has a long history as Hoppe’s coach. When he was managing the Giants in St. Helena Little League, Quirici did not hesitate to draft Hoppe — not knowing that seven years later the two would help St. Helena High to a record-breaking campaign.
“He’s a competitor,” Quirici said of Hoppe. “That has been the common denominator throughout the years. He’s not the most gifted athlete in terms of he’s not the fastest, he’s not the flashiest, he doesn’t throw the hardest, he doesn’t hit the ball the farthest but he competes. He also understands what it takes to compete. I think that’s what separates him and makes him what he is.”
Throughout the season, Hoppe could fill any role that he was asked, whether it was pitching or defense. As the No. 3 hitter, he could execute any task with assurance, whether it was starting a rally to lead off an inning, driving in a run or advancing a runner with a sacrifice bunt.
“I take a lot of pride in that because winning games is the goal,” Hoppe said. “If that means moving a guy over, I’ll do it if I have to.”
At one point in the season, it did not appear that the Saints would have the season they wound up having. The team went 5-5 in nonleague play before reeling off 15 straight wins, including their 9-2 victory over Fortuna in the playoffs.
“We lost a few games we should have won,” Hoppe said. “We had some injuries, but once league started we regrouped.”
Quirici added that besides his mental toughness, Hoppe has another quality that cannot readily be taught — a high athletic IQ.
“I can only attest to baseball but that is a strength,” Quirici said. “He understands the game. He thinks ahead. His high IQ is the perfect way to define how he plays the game. He goes up to bat with a purpose, and in the field he is ready to make that split-second decision. That comes from having that competitive edge.”
Hoppe also enjoyed a banner season in football and basketball. Most people were anticipating that Hoppe would choose football as his college sport of choice but instead he is going to play baseball at Boise State University, where he will major in criminal justice.
Due to lack of funding, the Broncos do not field baseball as an NCAA sport.
They compete in the Northern Pacific Division-Eastern Conference, where they are a member of the National Club Baseball Association.
Money for the baseball program is acquired from the university, sponsors and fundraisers arranged and ran by players and coaches.
The league is made up of other club teams that include the University of Utah, Utah State University, the University of Montana, Montana State University, Idaho State University and Weber State University.
Hoppe will be reunited with Brian Begerow, who graduated from St. Helena in 2012 and is on the Broncos baseball team.
“I went on a lot of official visits to a lot of the smaller schools for football,” Hoppe said. “I liked the official visits but being in a bigger school environment was what I wanted and I knew I could always play baseball at Boise State. They also have my major. It’s a win-win.”