In January 2009, the Sequoia High School baseball field got a $40,000 facelift. It took another year, and the hiring of a new coach, however, to give the baseball program a makeover.
Thanks to a grant from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, Major League Baseball groundskeepers put in new sod, professional-quality dirt and an improved pitcher’s mound and home plate area, leaving Sequoia with one of nation’s best high school fields.
Each year, one field nationwide is chosen by the Baseball Tomorrow Fund to be refurbished based on student demographics, field condition and the potential for upkeep. Larry DiVito, a Sequoia alumnus and head groundskeeper for the Washington Nationals, nominated the Redwood City school, and it was selected.
The trouble was, baseball was an afterthought to much of the school community at the time.
“You showed up and you made the team,” said Alex Kinder, now a senior outfielder and catcher. In the first season played on the state-of-the-art diamond, the Cherokee won six of 28 games. After that year, the coach was let go and replaced by the baby-faced Corey Uhalde.
Fresh from getting his master’s in education at UC Davis, Uhalde could be mistaken for one of his players or social studies students. He was new to teaching and new to being a head coach. Sure, he had coached the club baseball team that he founded at his undergraduate university, UC Santa Barbara, and also led a local junior varsity squad while in college. But his experience at Sequioa was different.
“It was my first job and head coaching job. I didn’t know the field, the talent level, or the expectations,” said Uhalde, whose last name is pronounced U-HAWL-DEE.
Uhalde quickly figured out what he needed to succeed —relate to his players. That was something his predecessor struggled to do, said Matt Eastman, currently a senior third baseman and relief pitcher.
Now the players call Uhalde “one of the guys,” and even joke with him about his preppy work attire (“where’s your sweater vest, coach?”). Given his boyish looks, they tell him, he probably could put on a uniform and step up to the plate and few would think twice.
His rapport with the players has had an immediate effect on the field. Last season, his first as head coach, the team improved drastically, going 16-9-1 and qualifying for the sectional playoffs.
Interest in baseball has also increased. This year, 60 students are trying out for junior varsity, up from 40 last season. About 35 juniors and seniors are going out for the varsity squad, which Uhalde will have to cut down to about 18 or 20 – – always the toughest task for a coach.
“The overarching goal is to grow the program to where you have to cut people,” Uhalde said. “It’s an indicator of a competitive program if people want to be a part of it.”
It doesn’t hurt, Uhalde and his players say, to have such a fine field to play on—a fact that gets reinforced when the team travels to other schools in the league with varying field qualities.
“When (other teams) come here they say how nice our field is and we always complain about their field,” Kinder said.
“It’s nice to practice on a good field and know that we won’t take (a ground ball) off the face,” Eastman added.
Having such a nice facility can bring about complications, however. Like most high schools, Sequoia lacks sufficient field space for all of its teams, so the baseball team often has to share its outfield with the soccer team. The field is also a hot commodity for youth leagues, which rent it in the offseason and on weekends.
These factors make it difficult to keep the field up to major-league standards. Not everyone knows how to professionally manage a field, Uhalde said, which means when his team is not around, field users may not properly rake the clay or pound down the mound.
The new diamond hasn’t solved all of the program’s problems. Baseball is one of a high school’s most pricey sports because of all the equipment involved. To help pay for new gear and uniforms, the players sold magazine subscriptions, cookie dough and even solicited corporate sponsors. Fund raising wasn’t emphasized before Uhalde arrived, his players said.
“We got new uniforms, which was nice because our black jerseys were starting to turn brown,” Eastman said.
Last season, according to Kinder, the team only had four functioning batting helmets at times, which meant that if the bases were loaded players had to hand off helmets to one another.
Uhalde doesn’t claim to be doing anything revolutionary at Sequoia, but it’s clear that he has raised expectations for the baseball program.
“We were good last year and we expect to be better and to go further in the playoffs,” Kinder said. Eastman chimed in: “I want to go undefeated.”