Lobos trying to round the bag

The Elsie Allen varsity baseball team fields only 10 players, but they have finally found some success this year. The junior varsity join the varsity so they have enough players for a practice scrimmage. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The Elsie Allen varsity baseball team fields only 10 players, but they have finally found some success this year. The junior varsity join the varsity so they have enough players for a practice scrimmage. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Jason Greiner fully understood the hurdles before him when he took over the Elsie Allen baseball program just two weeks before the season opener. So he set the bar low. The Lobos had gone 3-21 the previous year; with just 10 players on the 2013 team, none of them seniors, Greiner hoped to match that win total.

Elsie Allen did so by March 4, winning three of its first four preseason games (the fourth was a tie against Terra Linda). So Greiner readjusted: Let’s double the win total. The Lobos did that by April 6, bouncing back to beat Richmond after a five-game losing streak and evening their record at 6-6-1.

So Greiner readjusted again. He wants double-digit wins, not unreasonable considering Elsie Allen takes an 8-9-1 record into the week. Clearly, this program has turned a corner.

“Teams come in and think that they’re just gonna run us over, like, ‘Oh, the Elsie Allen game? We’re not gonna have to do anything,’ ” sophomore shortstop and pitcher Caleb Romero said. “And then we come out, and for that time that we do play great baseball, they’re just surprised. And we can see in their dugout that they’re getting mad.”

Bradley Greiner, left, takes infield practice while Caleb Romero waits his turn. The Elsie Allen varsity baseball team fields only 10 players, but they have finally found some success this year. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Bradley Greiner, left, takes infield practice while Caleb Romero waits his turn. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County League play has been a reality check for Elsie Allen, which is 1-6 in league. But even those games have been encouraging. Elsie had lost 32 consecutive league games — mostly in the North Bay League — before edging El Molino 2-0 on Apr. 12. Because of the improved record, the Lobos have found that SCL opponents are taking them more seriously.

Elsie Allen had gotten used to facing inexperienced or ineffective pitchers — guys meant to save the top starters for more worthy opponents.
“Not now, since we have a more competitive team,” said catcher Ernie Cortez, a junior.

“Now we’re getting to see people’s better pitchers. We’re struggling with it, but it’s definitely helping us for next year.”

This year, the Lobos haven’t been quite good enough to seal victories in the SCL. Case in point: Trailing defending champion Sonoma Valley just 2-0 in the fifth inning on Apr. 16, they got two runners aboard with none out. Romero then hit a screaming liner that went right to the shortstop, who stepped on second and threw to first for a triple play. Deflated, Elsie Allen lost 10-0.

“I give ’em an over-under before the game,” Greiner said. “I say, ‘Here’s the deal: The over-under is two today. If we boot the ball two times, we’re probably gonna get beat.’ We’ve got to play perfect. And we’re not gonna win 10-1 games. We’re gonna win 2-1.”

Elsie’s early-season wins came against smaller schools — good teams from Division 4 and 5. All of those opponents had larger rosters than the Lobos, who have played several games with just nine players. Greiner said he would call up a JV player rather than forfeit a game, but he hasn’t had to do that yet.

The small roster presents some challenges. Only a few players consistently man a single position; most have to be more flexible.

More significant, Greiner doesn’t have the luxury of pampering his arms. When a pitcher on another team goes five innings and throws 85 pitches, he retreats to the dugout and puts on his windbreaker. When a Lobos pitcher goes five innings and throws 85 pitches, he usually walks directly from the mound to another position on the field.

“Sometimes it’s hard because your arm gets sore, you have to try and tough it out,” said sophomore Bradley Greiner, the coach’s son.
Practice the day after a game tends to be pretty mellow at Elsie Allen, because the players’ arms are so tired.

Of course, suiting up nine or 10 players does have one advantage. “When I go do the lineup, it’s nice and easy,” Jason Greiner said. “Straight nine. These coaches have to use an extra page with all their subs. It takes them 30 minutes to do in-and-out (drills).”

Of Greiner’s 10 players, just one, Angel Sanchez, is a senior. And Sanchez is fairly inexperienced as a baseball player; he’s better known as star of the Elsie Allen basketball team. The rest of the crew includes two juniors, five sophomores and two freshmen. One outfielder is playing organized baseball for the first time.

And yet the Lobos’ have improved, perhaps fueled by their closeness off the field. Greiner has coached a club team, the Santa Rosa Predators, for five years, and five of his varsity Elsie Allen players are veterans of that club. They already knew what others have learned this year — that Greiner has a 24/7 open-door policy at his home.

Every day after practice, he loads up his Chevy Tahoe with teenage boys and drives to his house. He and his wife and kids share the dinner table with whoever is hungry.

“I just want to know how many people I’m buying for,” said Greiner, who also assisted Madison Lott with the Elsie Allen basketball team. “Believe me, we don’t go to Round Table, we got to Little Caesars. We’re regulars in there, buying HOT-N-READIES. Where else can you get 10 pizzas for $50?”

Adan Argueta tags out Ernie Cortez while Sean Greiner back up the play during practice. The Elsie Allen varsity baseball team fields only 10 players, but they have finally found some success this year. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Adan Argueta tags out Ernie Cortez while Sean Greiner back up the play during practice.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Most nights turn into a Lobos slumber party. Greiner, a driver for Pepsi, gets up at 2 a.m. to get ready for his deliveries. He has to slalom around sleeping baseball players to get to his front door.

Elsie Allen is not in a wealthy neighborhood, and some of these kids crave the stability of the coach’s home. It’s a clubhouse atmosphere, with teammates doing schoolwork around a table or watching TV in the Greiners’ entertainment room.

“During travel ball we have 18-year-olds,” said Cortez, whom Greiner describes as a legitimate first-team all-SCL candidate at catcher. “Usually you would think that 18-year-olds would go party with their friends, but they’d rather come over to Jason’s house and just mess around with little kids. It’s fun to be there. There’s really no rules, except like don’t break anything, and don’t set the house on fire.”

Actually, Greiner said, the two rules are (1) be respectful, and (2) do your homework.

“If you don’t have good grades, you don’t come over,” he said.

The Lobos’ improvement has generated a little buzz around campus, and more students have been attending baseball games — even road games, a rarity here. Greiner knows it can get so much bigger. He said five of his club players are currently at Montgomery, and another five at Analy, though most of them live in the neighborhood surrounding Elsie Allen.

Greiner, like a lot of coaches and teachers at Elsie, believe the school has been unfairly tagged with a negative reputation. Romero and Cortez agree. Both of them started at Montgomery but later transferred to Elsie Allen, and they prefer their new school. If Greiner can build a competitive baseball program and help keep southwest-Santa Rosa kids close to home, the team might take off.

With such a young roster, the Lobos should definitely improve over the next few years. That isn’t always enough to placate Greiner.

“I’ve had a lot of coaches after the games — you know, we lose 9-0. I’m thinking that was horrible, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, man, way better than they used to be,’ ” Greiner noted. “But we expect to win. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves.”

If they continue on their upward arc, no one will feel sorry for the Lobos anymore.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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