After two consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV titles and four section championships in the past five seasons, the 2012 Oakdale High varsity baseball jerseys might as well come with a bright red target on the back.
A win over Oakdale will be the key objective for opposing teams in the always-tough Valley Oak League as competing programs use the Mustangs to gauge their own progress.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for Oakdale, and with a deep cast of returning players, the Mustangs should be equipped to welcome all challengers.
“There definitely is a target on Oakdale, but this team works really hard and we go game by game to try and knock out teams we play,” Oakdale senior second baseman Kody Simons said. “So far that has worked really good for us.”
Oakdale is 6-1 on the young season with a lone 5-2 loss to Division I Pitman. The Mustangs went 2-1 in the Pedretti Tournament on March 8, 9 and 10 after wins over Modesto and Sonora.
Seven key members of the 2011 Mustang team that punished VOL foe, Manteca, in a six-inning 14-4 section title victory last year, lead Oakdale in 2012.
Simons, who was part of section titles in both 2010 and 2011, said the 2012 squad may be the best Oakdale team yet.
“Last year’s team definitely worked hard, but also relied on some guys with raw talent,” Simons said. “I think this year’s team has the guys with raw talent, but also works harder than any team I’ve ever played on.”
Simons plays alongside senior shortstop/pitcher Andy Morris (22 hits, 24 RBIs in 2011) in the Oakdale infield. Junior infielder/outfielder Spencer Thomas is back after a 27-hit season a year ago and is joined by the likes of speedy senior leadoff Mark Ortiz (29 hits), who scored a team high 32 runs with 11 stolen bases a season ago. Senior Justin Martin led Oakdale in batting average (.529) after 26 plate appearances in 2011, and also returns to the lineup. Senior catcher Lane Branch and sophomore pitching sensation Bryce Dyrda also return from the 2011 section championship team.
Dyrda is currently spending time away from the mound with a sore arm, but is expected to see regular trips to the rotation when Oakdale hits conference play. Dyrda sported a 2.36 ERA in 2011 at the varsity level after 11 appearances and 26.2 innings pitched.
Oakdale graduated starters Brennon Williams, Russell Longworth and cagey reliever Matt Butler, leaving vital roles for Dyrda, Morris and newcomers Logan Handzlik (junior), Eddie Machado (junior) and Drake Judd (junior) to fill.
“We are still working our rotation out,” Oakdale coach Hondo Arpoika said. “At this point we are focused on our fundamentals, getting after it every day.”
Oakdale’s lineup is likely to also shuffle Nick Garza (junior), Stefan Aguilar (senior), Erickson Dickens (junior) and Craig Handzlik (junior) into the mix.
Oakdale will need a steady lineup to keep up with a conference that claimed 10 postseason wins a year ago and sports six teams with a combined 27-9 record in the 2012 preseason as of Monday.
“It’s a little tougher this year,” Arpoika said. “Kimball returns everybody, East Union returns almost everybody, Sonora has their pitching staff back and Sierra is winning a lot of games.
“There are a lot of good teams out there in our league and it will be a battle week to week.”
Oakdale opens conference action with a home/away series with Kimball (4-0) on March 21 and 23.