It’s nice when at least half of your baseball team has been there before, but St. Helena High head coach Darrell Quirici feels pretty good about the four returners on his 12-player squad.
The Saints open their 15-game season at 4 p.m. Friday with a North Central League contest against visiting Lower Lake.
“I’m anxious to see our team out there competing for real,” Quirici said Monday. “It’ll be exciting to see how we perform after this many weeks of practice.”
Remember the Napa Valley Register’s All-Napa County Pitcher of the Year in 2019, sophomore Stacy Nelson III? The pitcher-infielder is now a senior, along with returning center fielder-pitcher Liam Gilson.
“These two will be our primary starting pitchers but, more importantly, we’re counting on them to provide the senior leadership high school teams need,” Quirici said. “They’ve both grown physically and are working hard at practices to get better, but more impressive to me is the growth in their maturity. We truly need them to be the example setters on our squad.”
Nelson pitched 83 innings in 2019, striking out 86, and posted an ERA of 2.024 and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.024. He hit .314 at the plate with a .446 on-base percentage and 14 RBIs. He was a fighter for those 14-11 Saints. In a 4-0 win over Healdsburg, battling a fever, he gave up a leadoff single and held the Greyhounds hitless for the remaining seven hitless innings. In a 6-4 complete-game win over Cloverdale, he gave up all three hits and all four runs in the first inning. He also held Middletown hitless after the first inning in a 3-2 North Coast Section playoff loss.
Teammates voted Nelson as team Co-Most Valuable Player, and he was a unanimous All-North Central League I First Team selection and All-State nominee.
Nelson saw limited action during last year’s pandemic-shortened season for St. Helena (2-3), getting the last two outs of a season-opening 4-1 win over El Molino and going all six innings in a 3-2 loss to Piedmont.
“Stacy, besides pitching, has the ability to play multiple positions on the field, which gives us some versatility,” Quirici said.
Gilson made a couple of varsity appearances as a sophomore in 2019 as an outfielder, but most of his experience came in last year’s five games.
“When not on the mound, Liam will be a fixture in centerfield where he demonstrates great range and has a solid arm,” said Quirici.
The only other Saints with varsity experience are juniors Jasper Henry and Brent Isdahl. Both had “cups of coffee” with the varsity team as sophomores, but also came of age last spring.
“Jasper is our starting shortstop and is a very gifted baseball athlete. I don’t think he’s yet come to be aware of how good a player he is and how much better he can become. He too will see significant time on the bump,” Quirici said. “Brent is our first baseman and, like Liam, swings from the left-hand side of the plate. He is a very strong young man and has the ability to use both sides of the field when he drives the ball.”
Rounding out the team are senior outfielders Diego Nunez and Dominic Martin and six juniors — catcher-pitcher Harrison Ronayne, infielders Miles Harvey and Spencer Printz, and outfielders Alejandro Guzman, Justin Maldonado and Orlando Segura, who also catches.
The coach said Martin and Nunez came in with no high school playing experience but “have been working diligently at practice to develop the skills required to compete at this level.”
The junior newcomers “are a solid group of ball players,” Quirici said.
“With the exception of Justin, all have played their way up to varsity through our JV program. Spencer will play third base and will see time on the mound. Miles is penciled in at second, but will also likely see time at DH. Harry will be behind the plate and will be called upon to pitch at times. Alejandro will play in the outfield and will likely see time in the infield, as well.
“Justin is an interesting story. He hasn’t played baseball at any level in the last three years, but decided to return this season. He has natural athletic ability and has worked hard to assimilate into our program.”
The assistant coaches are 1981 St. Helena alumnus Jim Gamble, the varsity boys basketball head coach in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and 2012 St. Helena graduate Danny Brink, who was a Sports Assistant with the City of St. Helena Parks and Recreation Department before being furloughed during the pandemic.
“I feel very fortunate to have both of them on my staff,” Quirici said. “Jim and I work very well together. He is very insightful and provides a calming presence in the dugout. He has a very good understanding of competition at this level.”
Brink starred with his twin, Joey, in football and baseball for the Saints and in baseball for Chico State. He hopes to return to his position with the rec department.
“Danny brings his youthful energy to our practices,” Quirici said. “He was a senior on the team my first year as head coach in 2013. Holding the career hits record at St. Helena gives him added credibility to the kids. Our players can’t help but be impressed when he hits off of me at practice — the ball jumps off his bat. He’s also as fast as anyone on our team, so his base running examples are exemplary.”
Back as JV head coach is Ken Adkins, who is assisted by first-year coach Dan Cullen.
“Both bring a wealth of coaching skills to the field, so our JV program is in good hands,” said Quirici.
The Saints’ schedule currently has 14 league games and a nonleague contest against visiting Justin-Siena on Saturday, April 17. Quirici said he hopes to add a few more nonleague games.
“This season has and will continue to be a unique one,” he said. “The real stumbling block appears to be our league contests against teams from Mendocino County. There is a state order that allows you to play only teams from adjacent counties (and yours). As a result, at this time we cannot travel to or host Fort Bragg and Willits.
“We were originally scheduled to play at Fort Bragg on April 6, but that game was postponed to a doubleheader year on April 30. The hope is that this rule might be relaxed by then, allowing competition between non-adjacent counties. If not then we will lose four league games, so it’s yet another uncertainty for the season. This state ruling certainly fails to take into account teams such as ours that play in a more rural area.”
A league title is all teams have to play for this spring, with postseason competition having been canceled by the CIF and North Coast Section. But at least they’re playing.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since our (2020) season was shut down minutes before we were to depart for a game at John Swett. I still feel for those six dynamic seniors who were poised to have a great season for our school, but that’s the reality of COVID-19.
“When I spoke to our team at one of our early practices, I told them how truly impressed I was with their ability to adapt and be resilient when dealing with so many obstacles these past few years — wildfires, poor air quality, power outages and, of course, COVID.
“When we went to Rohnert Park the week before last to scrimmage Credo High, it was really energizing to see kids on the field competing against another team. It was something that a few months ago I didn’t think we’d see this spring.”