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Aliso Niguel's Nocon aims for maximum impact
Leading up to a South Coast League baseball game between Aliso Niguel and Dana Hills high schools last year, thoughts of a highly anticipated pitching matchup between aces Kyle Molnar and Marrick Crouse stirred scouts and the media.
There was only one problem: Molnar had pitched two days before. That meant that Aliso Niguel’s pitching duties would fall on then-junior Zak Nocon, taking away much of the luster of what was an important league game.
A look at the box score the next day raised eyebrows. Nocon, now a senior, threw a complete-game shutout against Dana Hills, receiving just one run of support in the form of a solo home run from Blake Sabol in a 1-0 victory.
“We gave him some opportunities to throw, and it was impressive,” said Wolverines coach Craig Hanson. “He got an opportunity to start, and he hasn’t given it up.”
Nocon’s fastball tops out at 83 mph, but he has found that precision and movement work just as well when it comes to recording outs at the high school level.
Heading into last week’s series against El Toro, the Wolverines had won in his first seven starts this season, including a pair of league games. Aliso Niguel, without the luxury of a true power pitcher, is still very much on the hunt for a South Coast League title.
“He’s always dialed in the game,” Hanson said. “He knows he doesn’t have the explosive fastball. He’s not going to overpower anybody, so it’s all about location and having command. He’s been a huge help to us this year.”
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Nocon hadn’t pitched at the high school level until his junior season at Aliso Niguel, which doubled as his first on the varsity. Nocon began playing baseball at 4 and fell in love with the fact that baseball requires a players’ focus each and every play.
“Some might say it’s a boring sport, but I disagree,” he said. “It really entices me; it’s a game I can’t take a break on. You have to be mentally in it at all times.”
In his youth, soccer and hockey vied for Nocon’s commitment, but the diamond kept him coming back for more. Nocon says baseball is a game that requires you to think, and he liked keeping his mind occupied.
He began playing club baseball at 11, improving through the task of facing teams that were talented in every part of their lineups. That competition helped Nocon become crafty.
“Every hitter challenges you, so you have to hit your spot and make a good pitch every time,” he said. “It’s helped with the precision.”
Hanson first got a look at Nocon when he was in eighth grade in the Wolverines’ feeder program. Noting that he could pitch, Hanson initially saw Nocon as a position player. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, he played third base, first base and catcher while building his way up to the varsity.
Without a decided second starter last season, Hanson gave Nocon his opportunity. He didn’t waste it.
“He’s such a competitor,” Hanson said. “When I played in the minor leagues, one of the things the coaches told me was to throw three pitches for a strike at any time in the count. Zak’s able to do that in most cases. He doesn’t have to throw fastballs in fastball counts, and when you can mix it up like that, you can be successful.”
Nocon had his fair share of struggles, but he improved as the season progressed. Having Molnar as a reference point became a means of honing his skills.
“I picked up on some things,” Nocon said. “The way he uses his back leg, he drives through everything and gets on top of his pitches. I would pick his brain a bit by talking to him. See what he thinks when he’s up or down on hitters, his put-away pitches. It’s good to see what he thinks out there on the mound.”
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Nocon uses what he learned from Molnar and has put it to good use during his senior season.
“One thing that separates him from the others is that even when things aren’t going well for him, he looks like a bulldog on the mound,” teammate and catcher Blake Sabol said. “Nothing gets to him.”
Aside from an April 13 start against El Toro, not many hitters have gotten to him, either. Nocon has used his fastball, curveball and changeup to stymie opposing offenses this season. Sabol said the placement of Nocon’s pitches has been so good that he doesn’t worry about calling any pitch in any situation.
“It’s really easy to call a game with him,” Sabol said. “Even in a 2-0 count, he can throw a changeup right where I want it and I guarantee he’ll get a strike.”
In addition, Nocon and Sabol communicate routinely after innings to make adjustments on opposing hitters. If Nocon notices a hitter’s aggression, he’ll throw off-speed. A batter reaching for an outside fastball is sure to see one inside to start his next at-bat, Sabol said.
After catching a glimpse last season, Nocon knows hitters will be more aggressive against him as his senior season continues, but his trust in the defense behind him calms any nerves he feels heading out to the mound.
In a 3-1 complete-game win over Capistrano Valley April 4, Nocon allowed nine hits and didn’t strike out a single batter.
“We don’t see it; it slides off him,” Hanson said of any pressure Nocon might feel as his No. 1 pitcher. “He knows what his job is here, and he just goes out and feels like he’s going to get the job done every single day.”
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His teammates have expressed that same confidence in him.
“When Zak is warming up in the bullpen, we have a meeting before the game and the coaches always say, ‘Well, we have Zak on the mound today, so we know what we’re going to get out of him, so let’s put up runs for him,’” Sabol said. “It’s definitely a much calmer mindset when he’s out there.”
When he’s not out there, Nocon is just as focused, especially in the South Coast League, where during the next three weeks teams will play each other twice in the same week.
In the dugout, Nocon will notice batter tendencies and help keep his teammates involved. And it’s possible that Nocon could be called on to provide a relief inning here or there.
“He has a terrific work ethic,” Hanson said. “He’s one of the first guys to show up and the last to leave. Sometimes your teammates get a break, and he’s still here making sure everything is taken care of. As far as a teammate, there’s not anyone better.”
Nocon said he’s not satisfied with the speed of his fastball and continues to work to increase his lower-body strength. A little fine-tuning of the mechanics and he believes he can increase his fastball’s speed.
For now, he’s OK with being crafty, using speed and precision to frustrate his opponents at the plate.
“When he is pitching, he’s a great student of the game,” Hanson said. “He understands how to get guys out.”
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