Prep Baseball: Justin-Siena’s first section crown remembered
Prep Baseball

Prep Baseball: Justin-Siena’s first section crown remembered

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It’s always cost more to attend Justin-Siena than his alma mater down the street, but Vintage High graduate Allen Rossi didn’t let the Braves call the shots when he became their head coach in 1999.

“I recall taking over a Justin-Siena baseball program that was not respected and referred to as a ‘joke,’” he recalled recently. “A comment that I will always remember was ‘Justin-Siena baseball players are a bunch of entitled, spoiled kids that are soft.’”

Rossi thought they were anything but that, having seen how hard they worked to stay on top of rigorous classes at the private school. If they weren’t settling for mediocrity in the classroom, why do it on the field?

He just needed them to believe they could beat the big boys.

“Our first team meeting, I had the players write down three goals they had for the season,” Rossi recalled. “I read each player’s goals and ripped them up and threw them in the garbage. The players were a little shocked. I said ‘You are probably wondering why I just did that. Well, all of you had one common goal: beat St. Helena.’”

Napa High and Vintage had a great intra-county rivalry, so why couldn’t the Braves have one with their similarly sized and closest neighbor to the north? Because Rossi wanted them to think bigger.

“I wrote two names on the chalkboard, St. Pat’s and Vanden,” he recalled, “and said ‘Our goal should be to beat these two teams who have traded off winning the league title for years.’ That was the start of changing the baseball culture at Justin-Siena. I knew the first thing I needed to do was put a coaching staff together that had the same philosophy and no-nonsense style of coaching.”

Rossi brought on Rich Arnott as outfield coach, Mark Dunn as pitching coach, and Mitch Boggs as infield coach, after firing Boggs’ predecessor “because we didn’t see eye to eye on infield position players” following an 0-3 start, he said. “Mitch was our infield and hitting coach on the JV team and when I interviewed him, there was no doubt he was a perfect fit for my style of coaching.”

Matt Siegel said he knew about Rossi’s intensity and drive to win, having played under Rossi when he was an assistant coach in 1998 and then summer ball for him in 1999.

“I wasn’t too shocked when he tore up our goals,” said Siegel, who went on to play tennis at NCAA Division III Methodist University in North Carolina and now coaches high school tennis in the Boston area. “I think I played it safe and wrote down something like “Improve on last year” because I knew that was not only likely but could be easily defended.

“It was refreshing to see our coach right from the get go believe in us and from that exact moment, send the message that mediocrity would not be our goal. I don’t think any of us knew it at the time, but Coach Rossi was laying the groundwork for a winning attitude and culture and, to get to that point, he was letting us know that winning one game against one certain team should never be a goal. I think from that very first day, his goal was to completely change our way of thinking.”

Two of those first three losses were to the aforementioned big boys, 2-0 to St. Patrick-St. Vincent of Vallejo and 3-1 to Vanden of Fairfield.

“I remember sitting in the dugout until well after everyone had left thinking ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ The parents were pretty happy that we only lost to both of those teams by a small margin, since they had pounded us for many years. But I remember thinking, ‘I am not going to let this team accept moral victories,’ and I expressed that to the team at the next practice.

“I came to the conclusion that I needed to do a better job of coaching and I needed to move players around because we were failing defensively. My philosophy had always been ‘If we play catch, throw strikes, and do the little things offensively, we will have success.’”

After Boggs joined the staff, the Braves won 17 of their last 21 regular-season games and took a 17-7 record into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs – their first playoff berth since 1989.

1999 team set tone

“The game that really made a statement that Justin-Siena’s baseball culture had changed was the last regular-season game against St. Pat’s,” Rossi said of the Superior California Athletic League showdown. “We had already clinched our first playoff berth in 10 years, and second in 15 years, and had an opportunity to tie for our first league championship since 1984. It was one of the most exciting games I had ever been a part of as a coach.”

Justin-Siena tied it 2-2 with two runs in the bottom of the sixth, gave up a solo homer in the top of the seventh, and drew a bases-loaded walk with two strikes in the bottom half to send it into extra innings. The Bruins took a 5-3 lead in the top of the eighth, only to give up a two-run single to AJ Paniagua that forced a ninth frame.

“There are definitely some at-bats I remember better than others and that is certainly one of the ones ingrained in my memory,” recalled Paniagua, who now works for an insurance agency in Napa. “There was never anything worse than striking out, so anytime I was down in the count all I wanted to do was put the ball in play. Luckily, in that at-bat I was able to put the ball in play and I found a hole. Winning that game was incredible because no one expected us to have much success that season, but winning that game provided us with some validation and it set the tone for the years ahead.”

Rossi said he couldn’t remember ever seeing that many fans at Braves Field.

“I found out afterwards that people not even affiliated with Justin-Siena were driving by the school, seeing the score on the large scoreboard, and stopping by to see the game,” he said. “We ended up winning in the bottom of the ninth, 6-5. The celebration was remarkable.”

The season ended with another wild game, an 11-9 loss to Mesa Verde of Citrus Heights in the playoff opener, but the bar had been raised.

Despite having graduated much of its 1999 pitching staff, Justin-Siena won its first 10 games of the new millennium.

“By the time the 2000 season came around, the shift had already taken place,” said Justin Aspegren, who was on Steve Meyer’s junior varsity squad as a freshman in 1999 before helping win the section title in 2000. “What Matt Tindall and Kirk Spreiter started (as seniors in 1999), Rick Carpenter and Eduardo Borrego kept moving. Coach Rossi’s system and expectations were well in place.

“If an outsider just came and watched us practice, it would be really easy to say that it was all hard work and a never-be-satisfied attitude. The environment was extremely demanding and extremely deliberate, but the championship team had an unbelievable cast of characters. Everybody had their role. We were constantly laughing and making fun of each other, and we had a great time beating people and letting them know about it. To say that our team was hilarious would be an understatement, but we knew when it was time to buckle down.”

The Braves’ first loss was at Vanden, after they had been leading 9-3 in the sixth inning.

“Total meltdown, but it was probably the best thing that could happen to us,” Rossi said. “It was motivation for us the rest of the season. I remember having the team watch Vanden celebrate after they beat us and saying ‘I want you all to remember this feeling and make it a goal to not want to feel this way again.’”

The Braves avenged the loss with a 10-0 rout, winning it by the mercy rule on a walk-off grand slam by Steve Andres.

Justin-Siena had clinched its second straight SCAL title by handing the Vikings their first shutout loss in 10 years, according to Rossi.

“This was the game we had circled on the calendar,” recalled Andres, now a senior vice president in private wealth management at UBS in San Francisco.

With his team’s Division III playoff opener nine days away, Rossi said he accepted an invitation from the Fairfield High head coach – whose team also had a long playoff wait – to play a warm-up game under the lights at Laurel Creek Park in Fairfield.

“I recall the coach calling me twice prior to the game day asking me to make sure we gave them a good, competitive game so that they could be prepared for the playoffs,” said Rossi. “I told him ‘Well, we are 21-1 and we will try and give you a good game. We ended up winning 5-4 and, after the game, I asked him if that was good enough for him and his team. I didn’t get much of a response.”

Comeback kids

The Braves took a 12-game win streak into their playoff opener against Linden – a program that would produce New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge a decade later – at Lodi’s Kofu Field. Rossi said his players seemed as nervous as he was as they fell behind early, 2-0.

“Before that game, I took infield-outfield at third base,” recalled Justin Aspegren, who has been the pitching coach at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. since summer 2015. “I was so nervous just to be on the field, the first two ground balls Coach Rossi hit me went through my legs. I got kicked out of infield two fungoes into the routine and I was relegated to sitting in the bullpen.”

But this was nothing new for them. They knotted it 2-2 in the fourth and took the lead for good in the fifth, 4-3, on a two-run triple by Carl Gray – his biggest hit of the season. Andres added the exclamation point with a towering, two-run homer into the dark for a 6-3 final.

“What I learned from that game, and really helped me as a coach, was I can’t be nervous because the team will sense it and it will make them nervous,” Rossi recalled. “The rest of my career I coached aggressively in the playoffs, and that calmed my nerves.”

Facing St. Pat’s next in the semifinals. Rossi’s Rallyers erased a quick deficit by grabbing a 3-1 lead in the top of the second. In the third, the Bruins threatened to go back ahead when they had the bases loaded with no outs. But starter Aspegren shook off early struggles by striking out the next two batters out and induced a popup to escape the jam unscathed.

“I was super nervous again,” Aspegren recalled. “I was pacing in the dugout and Coach Dunn made me go down to the bullpen in between innings to throw and get away from everybody. I’m pretty sure I threw two complete games that day – one in the game and one in the pen. I really only remember two pitches – a 2-2 breaking ball for a strikeout in the middle of the jam, and giving up an absolute moon shot to left field in the sixth inning after we had already put the game away. A.J. played an unbelievable shortstop behind me that day. He was the best.”

With a 10-3 win, Justin-Siena headed to the championship game.

They had won 10 of 12 games since losing to Vanden and St. Pat’s, and were about to face a Calaveras squad coming off a 12-1 thumping of Vanden and on a six-game win streak.

Brimming with confidence, the Braves didn’t have to come back. They took a 2-0 lead in the first inning without a hit – “typical Justin-Siena baseball,” Rossi noted – as a walk, a bunt with a throwing error, a wild pitch and an infield groundout did the job. The Braves took a 4-1 lead into the top of the sixth, when Andres made what Rossi called the play of the game.

With a runner on first base with no outs, the Redskins tried a hit and run. The hitter lined a shot down the right-field line that Andres snagged with an over-the-head catch and threw back to first baseman Ron Duvall to double off the runner.

“You had to be there to witness the catch Andres made to truly appreciate how remarkable it was, running with his back to the infield and reaching up to make that play,” Rossi recalled. “If that ball gets over his head, who knows what happens?”

Jon Foreman struck out the last batter in the seventh, closing out a 4-1 victory, and the celebration began.

Aspegren said he also remembered Rick Carpenter’s RBI single through the six-hole in the championship game.

“Rick was our captain despite never having that official name given to him,” he said. “It was truly organic the way it happened. It just happened. He was truly the heart and soul of our club, a great ballplayer but even a better guy.”

Andres, who was in the second of four varsity seasons that year, said he doesn’t remember his two-run shot against Linden or the double play against Calaveras.

“I remember mostly the high-level moments,” he said, “like dog piling when we won the section championship and celebrating with my teammates and coaches.

“I also remember Allen’s truck’s license plate back in 2000 reading EXECUTE. Repetition, repetition, repetition was what our practices were centered around and it paid off in all facets of our game.”

The Braves finished their storybook season with a 25-1 record and their 15th straight victory.

“What made the 2000 season such a special season? The team was so close and played for each other,” Rossi said. “They were very unselfish and bought into what the coaches were teaching and trusted the process.”

School records set

A year after having their goals torn up, the Braves tore up the school record book. The new standards were 25 wins in a season, 1.59 ERA, .393 batting average, .529 on-base clip, 230 runs scored, 72 runs allowed, 91 walks, 26 hit batsmen, and .945 fielding percentage.

“No way in my wildest dreams did I ever think we would ever win a section championship – because of the history of Justin-Siena baseball,” said Rossi. “I had a personal five-year plan to just make Justin-Siena baseball competitive and eventually compete for a possible playoff berth and league championship.

“To turn the program around in two years took a collective effort of kids that bought into the program, wonderful assistant coaches that had the same philosophy, and changing the culture and perception of what everyone thought of the baseball program at Justin-Siena and putting us on the map.

Rossi would guide the Braves to five more titles after they moved to the North Coast Section, in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2014 and 2015 – over two stints, as he didn’t coach them from 2007-2011.

But the Y2K Braves were the blueprint.

“The 2000 team was tough as nails and by far the scrappiest team I have ever coached,” said Rossi. “We had a different hero every game and didn’t rely on one or two players to carry the team. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since our first section championship and that magical season. I will never forget the memories of that season and that team.”

Paniagua went on to play two seasons for Napa Valley College.

“I probably was one of those that put beating St. Helena as my goal,” he said. “At the time we were definitely setting the bar low for ourselves while Coach Rossi wasn’t going to accept mediocrity from us. So, like he always did, he was able to push us and get the most out of us.”

Paniagua earned a master’s degree in city planning from San Diego State and worked for a commercial real estate company for a number of years before moving back to Napa in 2016.

“I think all sports teach you to have a competitive attitude, being resilient, and the importance of following through with a commitment,” he said.

Andres didn’t move up the varsity in 1999 until after the preseason, so he didn’t see Rossi reset the team’s goals to beating teams like Vanden and St. Pat’s. But it made sense to him.

“At the time, Vanden was the team to beat in the league, with a talented roster and well-coached team. St. Pat’s was a natural rival for us in the other sports I played, football and basketball, so it does not surprise me that Allen focused on them as well,” Andres said. “He certainly had a flair for the dramatic when he was looking to hammer home a point, and it worked.”

Andres walked on at Notre Dame and played four seasons under then-head coach Paul Mainieri – who is now at the LSU helm – and graduated with a finance degree in 2006. He and wife Noelle, also a Justin-Siena graduate and his high school sweetheart, live in Sonoma with children Georgia, 9, Juliette, 8, and Beau, 5.

“My high school baseball experience helped me in college and beyond to emphasize the benefits of hard work but also setting goals and targets for myself to attain,” he said. “Pushing to that next level was a trait that Allen and the rest of the baseball program stressed on a daily basis.

“I personally did not see us as changing any culture. I remember enjoying coming to the field every day, learning rapidly from Allen and the other coaches, respecting my coaches and teammates, and feeling like we were all in it together as a true team as opposed to a group of individuals looking out for their own self-interest. Allen and the other coaches sacrificed hours and hours for us and the program and now, as a parent and coach, I appreciate their sacrifices even more than I did while playing. It was a great group to be a part of and I am still proud of our accomplishments today.”

Aspegren graduated from Justin-Siena in 2002 and attended UC Santa Barbara, where by 2013 he had earned a business economics degree and a master’s degree in exercise science with a concentration in sports psychology. Dual-enrolled, he played two seasons at Santa Barbara City College and two more at UCSB.

“Playing Division I baseball in a conference that sent teams to the College World Series is something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Aspegren a college coach

Aspegren was the pitching coach at SBCC from 2007 to 2014, spent two summers as a pitching coach in the Cape Cod League, two summers as a head coach in the Valley Baseball League, and two summers as a pitching coach in the California Collegiate League before joining the Mountaineers’ staff in North Carolina.

“To be on the other side of the ball as a coach now, I have a much better appreciation for the preparation that we did on a daily basis,” he added. “As a player you just show up and work hard, but now I know that Coach Rossi’s practice plans were very intentional and meticulously thought out. In reflection, there was a ‘why’ to everything that we did. My biggest takeaway is the dedication and precision required to be good and what is required to put a championship product on the field. And now to see that people still care deeply about a team that is 20 years old justifies everything that we did on and off the field.”

Kevin McCarroll, an infielder and son of then-athletic director Lynn McCarroll, was a three-sport athlete who said he was lucky to get to play for three great coaches – Rich Cotruvo in football, Tom Bonfigli in basketball, and Rossi.

“Between having those coaches and the fact a lot of us played multiple sports put us at a mental and physical advantage against any team we played,” McCarroll said. “Some of the guys on the baseball team were very high-level athletes in several sports.”

He has a degree in health promotion fitness management from Grandview and a master’s in physical education from Arizona State.

“My experience at Justin prepped me for many challenges down the road – discipline accountability, dedication, hard work,” McCarroll said. “You learn a lot from sports and other players when the bar is set high. It was hard work was first. A culture change doesn’t happen overnight, but we knew we had to do it quick. We had a good group of guys with great leadership within the Justin-Siena organization. From the athletic director to Coach Rossi, to leaders on the field like Rick, AJ, Eduardo and Jon Foreman, it was only a matter of time until we hit our stride. We did that pretty fast.”

Siegel said the culture change came from buying into Rossi’s new way of practicing.

“It meant doing drills over and over until we could do them in our sleep,” he said. “I remember some drills we did so much even after we had mastered them, or so I had thought. But Coach was thinking along the lines of “We do the drill until we get it right, and then we keep doing it until we can’t get it wrong. He would always say his goal was to have practices be tougher than the games, but we were prepared for everything. Whether we won or lost might depend on a timely hit or a fluke play, but we never lost because we weren’t prepared.

“We didn’t want to have fun at practice. We wanted to get better and improve and become a better team. Coach was demanding, but he was also fair. While practices weren’t necessarily fun, neither was not making the playoffs. Neither was finishing .500. What was fun was winning. To this day, I am glad those practices were tough. It showed us that if you want something, it’s achievable, but you’re going to have to work harder than everyone else to get it.

“There is a lot of Coach Rossi in the way I coach tennis – setting the bar high, holding every player accountable, and finding what each player does best and maximizing that to help the team.

“What was so great about this particular team is while we had some terrific ballplayers, we weren’t a team with multiple players going to play D-I baseball in college. We didn’t have guys throwing 90-plus mph. We had a group of guys who each knew what their role on the team was and willingly accepted that role. Coach knew better than anyone what we did and didn’t do well and he used that to make us a better team.

“There we no egos. Our leading hitter in terms of batting average that year hit ninth, Carl Gray. If you were having a multi-hit game and your next at-bat was a situation where you needed to bunt, you bunted and there wasn’t any complaining. It’s hard to imagine a team that went 25-1 as being scrappy, but that is what we were. We took the extra base, we bunted to move runners along, we would score a run on a walk, a stolen base, a bunt and a sac fly.

“I would guess that a lot of those teams we beat on the way to winning the SJS championship were more talented than us, at least on paper. But we had heart. We fought, we clawed, we scratched, and when you had an entire team like that, it made it almost impossible to beat us.”

Siegel tells his high school tennis players to savor their time together.

“I ask them, “Why do you think beer league softball is such a big deal for guys my age? It’s because we miss what you’re experiencing at this exact moment. We miss the battle. We miss the feeling of winning a hard-fought game.

“It’s 100% the truth. There’s a reason why so many people love talking about their glory days.

No one really cared about individual stats. We cared about winning and not much else. While we have all taken different paths in life that have spread us out all over the country, it’s remarkable to see how any time Coach or one of us posts a video or a picture of that season, how we all reunite socially and comment on it. I know I’m not the only one who knew how special those years were.”

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