Hughson Baseball
Hughson baseball team ready for showdown with Ripon

It’s not easy to quickly determine which is the strongest part of this year’s Hughson High baseball team.

Is it the pitching staff, which has struck out 154 opposing hitters while walking just 30 in 115 innings while compiling a team earned run average of 1.34?

Or is it the offense, which features five hitters batting better than .350 and has scored 172 runs 18 games?

Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above for the Huskies (16-2), who appear to be even better than last year’s team, which won the Trans-Valley League title and finished second in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs.

“We’re really blessed with pitching,” acknowledged coach Charly Garza, in his seventh year leading the team. “But this also may be the best hitting team I’ve ever coached. We’ve had some good teams in the past, but I don’t know if we have a collective group that hits the ball so hard.”

The Huskies will rely on all that talent this week as they ready for their two-game showdown with Ripon. Hughson is 6-0 in the TVL; the Indians are 8-0. A sweep by either side – Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Mistlin Field in Ripon and Thursday at 4 p.m. at Hughson’s diamond – would give that school the clear inside track to the league championship. A split would likely lead to a co-title with neither team expected to lose to anyone else in the TVL in the final weeks of the regular season.

“They’re like us,” said Garza of Ripon. “They returned most of their guys. They have good athletes. You have to play a complete game to beat them.”

Hughson and Ripon each won on their home field last season, when the Huskies surprised many people by making it to the Section finals before dropping a close game to top-seeded Bradshaw Christian. In 2022, Hughson started only two seniors. The rest of the 10-player lineup (including the designated hitter) consisted of four freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors – all of whom are back this season.

On the mound, Hughson features the one-two tandem of junior right-hander Caleb Wilson (5-2, 0.78 ERA, 55 strikeouts and eight walks in 36 innings) and sophomore right-hander Robert McDaniel (3-0, 1.11 ERA, 32 Ks, four BBs in 19 innings). Wilson will pitch Tuesday against Ripon and McDaniel on Thursday.

Behind them are sophomore Max Mankins (3-0, 0.94 ERA, 35 Ks, six BBs in 29.2 innings) and junior Paul Wagner (2-0, 3.00 ERA, 21 Ks, seven BBS in 14 innings.

“Caleb and Robert have been outstanding,” Garza said. “And Max and Paul could be No. 1 starters on another team.”

At the plate, the Huskies sport a lineup with no easy outs. Their team batting average is .355. led by three players hitting over .400 – senior Gavin Stone (.509 with 12 doubles and 21 RBIs), sophomore J.C. Lupercio (.466, 28 runs scored) and Wagner (.433 with six doubles, one HR and 22 RBIs).

The two ace pitchers also excel at the plate. McDaniel is hitting .357 with eight doubles, two HRs and 22 RBIs while Wilson is at .350 with five doubles and two HRs.

“We ask the kids to make hard contact and that’s what this group has done,” Garza praised. “On most teams, you get to the 6-7-8-9 guys in the lineup and most pitchers can relax. But with us, there’s no break.”

With more than half the season completed and the showdown with Ripon looming this week, Garza is impressed with how this group has come together. Hughson lost its season opener 5-0 to El Capitan of Merced, then ripped off 11 straight victories, most of them lopsided. The Huskies fell to Dos Palos in a non-league game on April 12, but rallied right back with five more victories, including an 18-8 demolishing of Hilmar on Saturday.

“We’re very pleased with the progress the kids have made fielding, hitting and pitching. It’s been tremendous,” Garza said. “You always hope they’re hitting on all cylinders, but I didn’t know the ceiling was this high for this group.”

Beyond earning the TVL title, Garza is reluctant to specify loftier goals – like winning the school’s first Section baseball title. Instead, he likes to focus on the process of getting better each day.

“We try to be consistent with the kids,” he said. “Our goals are more attainable personally and then, if we’re doing all those things, that gives you the best chance to win. It doesn’t always mean you’ll win, but you’ll have the best chance. Other factors out of your control – the other team playing well, the umpires, the weather. If you base success on a result, you’ll miss the point.”

Still, Garza likes the culture, work ethic and attitude of this Husky squad, saying, “We’re at the top of our game now.”