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BASEBALL PREVIEW: New coach, new players, familiar hopes at Casa Grande

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New Casa Grande High School baseball coach Chad Fillinger knows who’s on first, but not who will populate most of the other eight positions on the Casa Grande diamond.

Senior AJ Miller, an all-league selection and University of Oregon-bound athlete, returns to first base for Casa. But, even that is not absolutely certain.

“He has been working out in the outfield,” Fillinger pointed out, explaining that having the veteran in the outfield might be a way to get another bat into the Casa lineup, possibly three-sport standout Cole Shimek.

Wherever he plays, Miller will be a Gaucho mainstay. “He plays the game the right way and he plays hard,” the coach said.

Fillinger, who replaces Paul Maytorena, one of the most successful baseball coaches ever in the Redwood Empire, is not the only new figure on the Casa diamond. So are many of his players.

Casa Grande sent four players from last season’s North Bay League championship team to D-1 schools. Of the main position players from that championship group, only Miller, Dylan Moore and Joe Lampe return. All three will start in the infield (unless Miller moves to the outfield).

Fillinger gives Lampe what, for a Gaucho, is the ultimate compliment.

“He is a modern-day Jonny Gomes,” Fillinger said. “He wants nothing more than to beat you. He doesn’t care about the glory, he just wants to win.”

After the veteran trio, Fillinger is waiting for someone or someones to step up. Noah Bailey, Ibai Guadron and Connor Klemenok can all help in the infield.

It is much the same situation in the outfield, where Joey Loveless and Justin Millard both made contributions last year, and junior Austin Mattos could be a big help this year, as could Elijah Waltz.

Both Cole Santander and Cameron Downing will catch, and when they aren’t behind the plate, their bats will put them in the lineup somewhere. Santander has already agreed to continue his baseball career at the University of California.

Casa Grande has two proven quality varsity pitchers in Nik Kamages and Broc Burleson. After that, it is whoever steps up.

Travis Morgan pitched mostly for the junior varsity last season because there just wasn’t enough room for him among the bevy of quality Casa varsity pitchers.

Chris Sanchez is a left-hander who could be invaluable coming out of the bullpen. Chance Torri and Zack Orella are also strong candidates to help.

Moore, Lampe, junior Owen Hill and Loveless all could help.

Aaron Van Tighem, who was good enough to earn all-league honorable mention notice as a sophomore, is back after missing his entire junior season to recover from Tommy John surgery. If healthy, he could be a major mound contributor for the Gauchos.

“I think we’re going to have a pretty well-rounded team. We have a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions,” Fillinger said. “Hitting is our strength. If we throw strikes and play defense we’re going to be OK. I think people are going to be surprised.”

The coach said the Gauchos are going to be aggressive. “We’ll run, steal bases and make other teams beat us,” he explained.

Fillinger said he feels fortunate to be following a coach like Maytorena.

“I respect what he has done and what he has given me,” the new coach said. “He left me a great organization. It is not something I have to restore. I just have to continue the legacy.”

Fillinger noted that it all began with Maytorena’s successor, Bob Leslie. “He created an incredible sense of pride, respect and love for Casa Grande baseball. Paul carried that on, and I want to make sure the leacy continues.

“We all use the same formula, we just use slightly different ingredients.”