Denair High is referred to as one of the “small schools” by many, considering they serve around 300 students. With such a small population, having enough students to fill rosters on their athletic teams isn’t always the easiest of tasks. This spring, though, participation is plentiful for each of the sports, bringing much excitement to coaches, staff and students alike.
It’s a new era for the Denair High baseball program, as Mike Stucker takes the helm for the varsity squad following the departure of Craig Hunnel at the conclusion of last season.
Stucker isn’t stepping into the head coaching role blindly, though, as he coached the Turlock Christian ballclub in the mid-2000s before stepping away to become a father. In recent years, he has served as an assistant coach the Coyotes. He also brings the knowledge of a former player, having played college ball at Stanislaus State under coach Mark de la Motte.
“I love baseball, I love coaching, and I just wanted an opportunity to give back and be involved. I’m excited to be coaching again. I’ve missed it a lot,” Stucker said.
In his first season as head coach, Stucker will be inheriting a problem that many schools continue to deal with: a small roster with little experience. He believes that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are the reason behind it.
“We’re still dealing with the effects of COVID with a lot of these guys not having played in a couple years, so some guys are barely getting back into it. Some kids haven’t played since 7th grade, and most didn’t have an option, so this season will be a good experience for them and myself.”
One returning player who has taken on a leadership role for the young team is senior pitcher and shortstop Jackson Hart.
“I’m excited for this year. I feel like we’ve got a few guys who are willing to work harder than past years,” Hart said. “Coach Stucker and [Jose] Alamillo have so much knowledge and baseball IQ, so I just look to them and my father and even [Andy] Walker at Pitman High for instilling in me some leadership skills, and so far, things have been going well.”
Things are going well in Stucker’s eyes too, agreeing that the work ethic and passion has been strong with his young group.
“With the lack of experience, I’ve been impressed with the willingness to work,” he said. “There’s some good teams in our league, but I think we can compete. If you can throw strikes in baseball and play good defense, you can beat anybody.”
One of the players the Coyotes will rely on to throw strikes is sophomore Kaden Prine.
“I’m just stoked up right now to be able to play with all these guys,” Prine said. “It’s going to be a fun year. Everyone is so energetic, and everyone likes each other and is so cool. I look forward to watching this young team grow.”
The Coyotes will next travel to Johansen High in Modesto for a game set to start at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
One team making a highly anticipated return to action this year is the Coyotes softball squad. Last year, the team didn’t have a season as there were not enough girls willing to play. This year, the Coyotes have 14, all of which head coach Katie Johnston-Arteaga says are eager to compete.
“I’m hopeful for this year. I feel like I have a ton of raw athletes on the team, so I feel like we can compete,” she said. “We’ve got a young team, but they’re going to be good.”
Johnston-Arteaga took over the softball program last year, but given the circumstances of the roster and the season, 2023 will officially be her first year at the helm for what she anticipates to be a good season.
The Coyotes will be led by senior catcher Madysyn Davis and senior shortstop Dakota Rutherford, each who are equally talented on both sides of the ball.
“I’m just looking forward to see the girls be excited to be able to play again,” Johnston-Arteaga said. “And I’m hopeful we can build this program. We started working with some girls at the middle school, so I think we can help spark interest. With that program and us playing this year, I think this can be the start of something great for years to come.”
The Coyotes will next host Summerville High for a game at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
TRACK AND FIELD
Jim Wagner and the Denair track and field team face a similar situation with plenty of youth to work with for this year and the coming seasons. Though the majority of team members are underclassmen, Wagner explained that it will give him an opportunity to get his team as much varsity experience as possible.
“I have a lot of underclassmen, but it’s inspiring because it builds for the future. Regardless, for our league and in the Southern League, we always have a strong year, so I’m expecting that to be the case this year. The way I see it, although we can probably win league and other things at the JV level, I’d like to forgo that and bring them up to varsity so that they can get the best experience possible,” he said.
Some of the underclassmen have already made their presence felt at the varsity level. Last year, Ezekiel Flowers won league in discus and second in shot-put as a sophomore. As a freshman, Jayden McGrath made it to the Sections meet in high jump.
Isaac Villa-Martinez is one of the few seniors competing for the Coyotes this season. Aside from running, the multi-sport athlete has taken the role as mentor, as the Denair coaching staff has run thin, and it’s something that Wagner hopes can be beneficial for the students.
“I can’t say enough about having him around,” Wagner said. “In past years, I’ve had an assistant coach. This time around, I only have a throwing coach, who I’m grateful for, but everything else, it’s just me and some of these older kids. And I want to build that with some of the younger kids, get them to a point where they are coaching the middle school. It’s good for them, their attitude, character and builds community, and that’s what Denair is all about.”
The success of athletics teams can vary from year to year, which makes the consistency of the Denair High boys golf team even more impressive. Led by head coach Greg Gaudio, the Coyotes are looking to make another run at dethroning Ripon Christian in the Southern League and further compete for a Sac-Joaquin Section title.
“We made it to Sections where we got third place, which is a great accomplishment,” Gaudio said. “Every year, we’ve had a full team while we see some of the others kind of drift away. Us and Ripon Christian seem to be the most consistent always having a full team, and I’m proud of that.”
Individually, Ethan Gonsalves will look to follow-up a stellar sophomore season where he made an SJS Masters appearance and fell just six strokes short of punching a ticket to the NorCal Regional tournament.
“Ethan was our little phenom and he’s just getting better. We calculated the handicap the other day and it’s 3.6, so he’s definitely someone to keep an eye out for,” Gaudio said.
Gaudio explained that Gonsalves’ skills are especially impressive considering he came into his freshman year having little experience. The fact that he has built himself into a regional contender in a year’s time already has teammates looking up to him.
We’re a team of seven and we’ve got three kids who have never golfed before, but they’re excited to be here and to learn. These new guys see that and hear the stories of how bad Ethan was as a freshman, and it gets them excited and inspires everybody. He’s a great kid too, so it’s always great to have someone on your team like him, always willing to learn while helping others,” Gaudio said.
Like with track and field, coaching has run thin for the Coyotes co-ed tennis squad, leading Denair High athletic director and football coach Anthony Armas to take on the role.
“This is my first year ever coaching tennis,’ Armas said. “It's the first time in a long time where I get to be more of a student than a teacher as the kids ‘show me the ropes’ of tennis.”
After their first couple of practices, though, Armas believes that the talent of some players are enough to put anybody on notice, regardless of knowledge of the game. Some players he suggests keeping an eye on are Gio Larios, Dakota Richards, Jacqueline Ventress and Gabriela Verduzco.
“I’m just looking forward to working with the players and getting to coach and get to know some kids that I haven't necessarily had in class or crossed paths with in athletics,” Armas said.
The Coyotes will next host Orestimba High of Newman at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Names like Angel Sanchez, Tim Hernandez, Emanuel Renteria, Nico Zavala, Sergio Torres, Jose Valle Villa, Octavio Valla and Eddie Verdugo may seem familiar, as they are all members of this year’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI-winning soccer team. Most of the band of brothers will be sticking together come spring for the inaugural boys volleyball season.
Hernandez will serve as captain of the team, as he is the only one who has previously played organized volleyball in a league. Renteria, Verdugo and Zavala also have experience under their belts, attending several volleyball clinics held at Denair in past years.
“The rest of the team is very much learning the game,” said head coach Christy North. “The benefit that they have is that they are already a team, they just have to learn the game of volleyball. So, I am excited for this season, because they are excited, and as I said, because they are already a team they already know how to work together. They already have a great bond.”
And North’s analysis proved correct as the Coyotes dominated their first match in history by winning in three straight sets against Waterford.
Despite only having one game played, it seems as if the Coyotes are already ahead of the curve in the fast-growing game of boys volleyball.
The Coyotes will next travel to take on Ripon Christian at 6 p.m. Tuesday.