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Brea Olinda sophomores find their comfort zone
BREA - Tyler Becker and Kyle Jackson look the part.
Baby faces? Check. Post-adolescent physiques? Check. Unfettered confidence? Check.
Becker and Jackson are sophomore archetypes. How they look, how they talk, how they interact with others – everything they do screams early teens. Even the way Jackson’s baseball cap rests atop his head infers he isn’t done growing into it.
Their innocence is as refreshing as it is pure. They are blank canvases, waiting to be painted with dirt marks and grass stains.
Brea Olinda baseball coach Aemon Fowler earlier this season unearthed his program’s future. It looked so good, in fact, he decided to make it his program’s present.
“These are guys that are going somewhere after they graduate,” said Fowler, who is in his second year. “When they do well as 15-year-olds, it’s only going to breed more and more success for their junior and senior years.”
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Becker is Brea Olinda’s starting second baseman. Jackson is its No. 1 pitcher.
The men responsible for coaching them say it’s unusual for high school ballplayers to come along this quickly.
Rich Pohle, Brea Olinda’s assistant coach, has mentored Becker for four years and lauds his awareness and smarts. Becker is willing to learn something new every time he sets foot on the field, Pohle said. He wants to get better, and there’s still so much to learn.
“Tyler’s a kid you can rely on,” Pohle said. “You don’t typically see team leaders that are sophomores. But the knowledge Tyler brings to the defense is what puts him in that position. This year is huge for him.”
Matt Schwarz, the pitching coach, knows how difficult it is for juniors and seniors to acclimate themselves to varsity ball, let alone sophomores receiving promotions without fair warning.
Schwarz seldom sees upperclassmen on the mound with Jackson’s poise, his gumption. Looking the part, Schwarz said, is often half the battle.
“Everyone has nerves, but K.J. performs well through them,” the coach continued. “He has confidence – that’s his greatest strength. He can handle the game emotionally. That’s why he has the ability to compete and be as successful as he has been this year.”
Becker and Jackson don’t do anything spectacular, but they get the job done. That, Fowler said, is how sophomores earn starting spots on varsity.
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For Becker and Jackson, baseball is life.
They made the rounds as preteens, jumping from recreational team to recreational team. Soon enough, baseball became a year-round undertaking, complete with weekend tournaments and summer ball.
Becker and Jackson said they often wore their successes and failures on their faces, as they rode the game’s emotional roller coaster. They eventually learned how to get past shortcomings, how to focus on the next inning, the next opportunity.
They also reveled in the sport’s beauty, its simplicity.
“You don’t have to be the biggest guy or the strongest guy to do well,” said Becker, who moved with his family from New Mexico to Orange County in middle school.
“If you’re not the most talented, you can work on it,” Jackson added. “If you work hard, you get the results you want.”
Becker and Jackson met in seventh grade, when they joined Blue Wave, a high school feeder program run by Pohle and other local high school coaches.
Tournaments dotted the boys’ summers, and they played against kids now playing for El Dorado, Canyon and Huntington Beach. Two years with Blue Wave preceded their freshman year at Brea Olinda.
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Becker debuted this spring in the varsity lineup after impressing Fowler in the offseason. He was the shortstop on last year’s freshman team and transitioned to second base in the winter.
Becker admitted last week he fought nerves early in the season, but said he knew he could play alongside upperclassmen.
Nearly halfway through the season, Fowler said Becker is “locking down second base like nobody’s business.”
Becker, whom his coach called “the savviest guy on the team,” is a glovesmith.
Fowler expects him to start at shortstop the next two years as he gains more arm strength and increases his range. Also, his bat is valuable. Becker, a lithe 5-foot-9, typically bats ninth in the order, the pivot spot. He rarely strikes out and makes tons of contact. He’s sound fundamentally, the definition of a tough out.
Pohle said Becker is a staple in the batting cage before and after practice.
“If he improves as much this summer as he has in the last year,” Fowler said, “then he’ll be a plus shortstop his junior and senior years.”
Jackson, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound right-hander, began the spring on junior varsity as the team’s ace.
He shut out Ayala of Chino Hills in the second game of the season, allowing only one hit. He was brought up to varsity the next day. Fowler and Schwarz liked Jackson’s control and poise, his ability to throw three pitches for strikes. They told him he’d see innings here and there, likely when Brea Olinda led by a lot or trailed by a lot.
Jackson came on in relief of teammate Noah Goellrich on March 7, taking the hill after Goellrich struck by a line drive on his pitching hand. Jackson threw 4 2/3 shutout innings in his debut, earning the win in a 2-0 game.
“I thought (varsity players) would be gods,” said Jackson, who’s been touched up a bit since his first appearance but leads the team in innings pitched. “But I have confidence. I knew they weren’t better than me. I don’t throw as hard as other pitchers, I’m not as big. But I knew I could hang.”
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Becker and Jackson are treated like sophomores.
They fetch water for coaches, they carry bags of balls to games. They’re regularly ribbed, told to keep quiet during team meetings.
Seniority rules, they said. Truth is, they’re just happy to share the experience together.
“We’ve been close since seventh grade,” Becker said. “I was so pumped to have another sophomore on varsity. Kyle’s my boy.”
Though Brea Olinda currently sits below .500, Becker and Jackson are receiving valuable varsity experience. Fowler said his team, green as it is, could easily have a winning record if it executed better late in games.
Still, his squad – Becker and Jackson, especially – are learning from their mistakes. They’re also beginning to appreciate the importance of preparation and execution.
“Their transformation,” Fowler said, “has been a joy to watch.”
The future is now for Brea Olinda, and it’s in the hands of a 16-year-old second baseman and a 15-year-old starting pitcher.
Strange as it sounds, Fowler is OK with that.
“Nothing I’ve ever done has felt as good as playing baseball,” Becker said. “We just want to compete.”
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