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Behind an offense heavily reliant on efficiency but without any obvious sluggers, the El Molino Lions have emerged as the team to beat in Sonoma County League baseball heading into the halfway mark of the season.

The Lions, who last won a league pennant in 1991, are 4-0 in SCL games heading into Friday’s key road contest with the 2-1 Petaluma Trojans.

The Lions have a 10-3 overall record, scoring 105 runs and allowing 28. Their collective batting average is an impressive .443. Sophomore Patrick Atkinson is leading the Lions with a .636 batting average while pulling closer duties on the mound.

The emergence of junior Jordan Hamner at catcher has been a boon. Lost for the majority of his sophomore season with an ACL injury, Hamner has given the Lions an important weapon on defense.

“He’s been a major difference,” second-year coach Justin Lewis said. “The major difference is having him behind the plate. His arm down to second base — he’s quick; he’s got a cannon.”

And he’s almost as good at the plate as he is behind it.

Hamner is hitting .564, behind only Atkinson. He’s tied for first in hits, is second in RBIs and has more doubles than anyone on the team.

The Lions are again relying on the pitching of junior Sam Wilson-Mietz and senior Bradley Swinney. Wilson-Mietz has an ERA of 0.41 while hitting .489 and Swinney has an ERA of 2.37 while hitting .500.

After the Petaluma game, the Lions stay on the road and play rival Analy on Tuesday.

The Tigers have gotten off to an uncharacteristically shaky 1-3 start in league play.

“I look at Analy, Piner, Sonoma and Petaluma fairly equally,” Lewis said. “Petaluma obviously has the remnants of that Little League World Series team and Analy, Piner and Sonoma are always big games to us.

“Most of everybody in our league is a big game,” he said.

Which makes the Lions’ 4-0 start pretty impressive. What makes it more impressive is considering their record in recent years.

The last time El Molino broke the .500 mark in league play was 2006, well before the league re-alignment which sent Windsor and Casa Grande to the North Bay League. That year the Lions went 9-6 and tied for third.

It’s been a pretty serious dry spell ever since. And a revolving door of coaches hasn’t helped. Lewis is the fourth head coach at El Molino since longtime skipper Rick Tacia left after the 2010 season.

Athletic director Mike Roan acknowledged it has been hard to hire and keep coaches. The school has seen its enrollment fall off in recent years and its location in Forestville can make it tough for coaches to create a schedule around a time-heavy after-school program, he said.

The fact that Lewis and many on his coaching staff are El Molino grads likely helps sow stability.

And the way Lewis describes his staff’s commitment not only to the program, but to things like groundskeeping, has the feel of ownership.

“I would say it’s a negative to the program when you have coaches changing all the time,” Lewis said.

Lewis expressed admiration for the Lions’ last coach, Tony Franceschi, who went 36-37 over three seasons.

“It was tough for me to come in and replace him. The only thing that helped me was I’ve known these kids since the day they started playing baseball,” he said.

And that’s helped with what Lewis described as buy-in to his program.

“Last year we didn’t have much of an offseason workout,” he said.

This season it’s a different story. He had guys in early and as the season rolls on, Lewis has his players doing heavier workouts and cross-training. There was some pushback at first, he said, but then the results starting becoming clear.

“We work out pretty much every day we are not playing a baseball game,” he said. “We are in the weight room every single day.”

For Roan, the turnaround has been sweet.

“I look at baseball as one of our more successful” athletic programs, he said. “We’ve made the playoffs consistently over the years.”

But making this kind of early run in the Sonoma County League is something different. And it feels good.

“Sonoma Valley was an eye opener,” he said of the Lions’ 8-5 victory against the Dragons back on March 30.

“That was a message early on, a statement that El Molino baseball means business,” he said. “I’m excited about what the next four or five weeks hold for these guys.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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