Wildcats senior Santino Nanez makes an acrobatic play to field the ball and make a throw to first base for the out during their 4-3 non-league home win over Pioneer High on Feb. 28. Los Gatos looks strong again in its quest to win league and CCS titles. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

The Los Gatos High baseball team is one of the handful of public school squads in the Central Coast Section that is capable of beating the powerhouse West Catholic Athletic League programs that typically dominate the top playoff Open Division. 

This season should be no exception. In coach Mike Minkel’s words, Los Gatos has a “plethora” of talent at every position, enough to hold intrasquad games where the “starters” go against the “backups.”

Starters—or ones—and backups—twos—can flip-flop at any position depending on who is performing the best in practice and games. 

That’s a luxury few schools outside of the WCAL have. And Los Gatos—which entered this week’s play with a 3-1 record—is one of them. 

“There’s not much fallback from our first option to our second option,” Minkel said. “We feel that way across the board with the exception of (Carter) Johnstone. We’ve got lots of pieces, lots of depth, a steady mix of (upper class) returners, to guys from the JV team that won their league championship last year.”

Simply put, Johnstone is one of the top five players in the section. The senior shortstop has signed with Cal State Fullerton and earned Second Team All State and Co-CCS Player of the Year honors last season.  

“Our offense runs through Carter,” Minkel said. “He’s already off to a really good start and is kind of the catalyst for us. He’s just an all-around baseball player and can play any infield position. I could probably put him in the outfield if we need him to go to the outfield.”

Johnstone hits No. 2 in the batting order with junior outfielder Brayden Smith as the No. 3 hitter.

“Brayden has kind of served as protection in the lineup for Johnstone,” Minkel said. “It makes teams that much harder for them to pitch around Carter when someone like Brayden is hitting behind him.”

Donovan Freed, a returning senior first baseman, put up some impressive numbers last year and has improved his defense. Minkel also expects big things from returning senior Sage Romero, who is one of the most versatile players on the team. 

“Sage Romero is another catalyst for us, another Swiss Army Knife” Minkel said. “He’s a competitor and has started pretty hot this year hitting cleanup. He’s looking for pitches to drive early in the count and when he gets to two strikes, you can see a conscious decision by him to essentially do whatever it takes to do the job. He gets the ball around to drive the run home or move guys over.”

Romero is also a part of a pitching corps that Minkel can’t stop raving about. The second-year Los Gatos skipper said he’s got four quality starters in AJ Minyard, Anthony Andrews, Matt Ludeman and Ethan Williams.

Minyard is the lone returning starter and is coming off a tremendous junior season in which he routinely posted quality starts and at times was dominant. 

According to Minkel, Andrews is a rare talent.

“He’s one of the most athletic guys we have on the roster,” he said. “And when he’s at his best on the mound or behind the plate, it’s hard for us to find someone as good. So, the key for us is keeping him fresh at both positions and making sure we’re using his talents to the best of his ability—and what works best for the team.”

Ludeman and Williams were on the junior varsity team last season and have made a seamless transition to the varsity level. Ludeman pitches and plays first base, and was the starting center on the Los Gatos High football team that made a historic run this past season in reaching a CIF Regional Bowl Championship game final for the first time in school history. 

“Matt’s athleticism breaks the mold of whatever people might think of a lineman playing baseball,” Minkel said. “You see him on the mound pitching, and you’re not thinking he’s an offensive lineman.

“He’s one of the biggest competitors we have, a great kid, with a fantastic work ethic and a desire to win.”

Minkel said he was expecting big things from Williams as well. In the team’s most recent game, a 4-3 win over Carmel High on March 2, Williams came on in relief in the third inning and shut Carmel down. This allowed the Wildcats to rally to victory. 

“Ethan backed Matt up and was lights-out the rest of the game,” Minkel said. “He held Carmel down and allowed our offense to scratch and claw, chip away and win it. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without Ethan coming on and essentially slamming the door shut from the bottom third inning on. Pitching has been a real strength for us for the first four games.”

Los Gatos also has Tre Golino coming out of the bullpen, giving Minkel plenty of options to use on the mound.

“It’s almost like we have too much depth for playing two games a week,” he said. “I wish we could play more games and I don’t understand why we don’t.”

Rowen Smith will play catcher when Andrews is pitching, giving the team quality depth behind the dish. In fact, Minkel has two lineups assembled—one specifically against right-handed starters and another for left-handers. Competition is fierce at almost every position, making for some tough decisions for the coaching staff. 

“It’s probably the most depth I’ve seen in a high school program,” Minkel said. “Our intrasquads are very competitive. We have two full rosters playing. It reminds me a little bit of (MLB) spring training, where every team has split squads. One team plays here; one team plays at another place (at the same time). I’ve told players time and time again, it’s their job to make the decision tough on me as far as who is in the field and who is on the mound. And so far it’s been pretty tough.”

Los Gatos has a storied baseball tradition but hasn’t appeared in a CCS playoff final since 2018, when it lost to Valley Christian 4-3 in the Open Division championship game. The Wildcats’ last section title came in 2009.

However, they’ve put themselves in position to win another championship time and again, and this season should turn out no different. 

“We feel like on paper we can be as talented as any other team in the opposing dugout,” Minkel said, reflecting on the competitiveness of the Open Division match-ups to come. “We want to make sure we’re working harder than those teams.”

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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