Grossmont's Hunter Stratton cheers the Foothillers' rally against Valhalla.
Mike Wilson was not even a little surprised when his Valhalla Norsemen faced league opponent Grossmont for the San Diego Section Division I baseball championship.
After all, he’d had to battle back to get past another Grossmont Hills League rival, Helix, just to make it to the title game last weekend at USD’s Fowler Park.
“East County baseball will always be there,” said Wilson, whose club dropped a 6-4 decision to Grossmont in the title game after going 2-1 against the same Foothillers club in league play. “It starts in Little League and Pony League. There is no question that, top to bottom, the Grossmont Hills League is the best in the county.
“That’s taking nothing away from teams like Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Buena Vista, but when you have to play a team three times in league out here, it’s tough. There isn’t a single team you’d feel comfortable with using your No. 3 pitcher.”
You can bet Wilson would get an argument from elsewhere in the county, but he could just smile and point to the results.
Supposedly the best programs were in the Open Division this year. The winner? Granite Hills, which captured the Hills League and still lost to Grossmont and Valhalla. Looking at the new playoff format, which puts the best programs over the past five years in the upper divisions, the East County had three of the four finalists.
“We play the best teams outside of league early, too,” Wilson said. “We went to Palm Desert in the winter and I thought we were pretty good. We went 1-4 playing against some of the best teams in California. But that helped us heading into this season.
“It’s a top brand of baseball out here. We’ve been seeded sixth, 11th, 10th and seventh before getting a No. 5 seed this year and made the semifinals of the playoffs the last five years. Some teams only play two league games and line up cupcakes for the rest of their games. They get a home-field advantage because of their records, but I prefer the way we do it.”
Although Wilson was an assistant coach at Cathedral (formerly University of San Diego High), he couldn’t wait to apply when the Valhalla position opened six years ago because he knew the kind of quality of ball played in the Grossmont Conference. Even now, he notes that Cathedral pitcher Brady Aiken, the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft earlier this month, lives in the Valhalla attendance area.
“I told them when I was hired that I wanted to win as much as the next guy, but my No. 1 goal was to graduate the players and get them to the next level,” he said. “I love to send kids to the next level — it doesn’t matter if it’s D1 or Grossmont College. There is so much gratification when you see them succeed because you feel like you had a little part in getting them there.”
He said that he’s fortunate in that most of his players realize the value of getting good grades so that even if they aren’t recruited heavily at first, often colleges that lose players to the Major League draft will take another look, knowing his athletes will qualify academically.
Wilson said playing those tough games day after day, which resulted in a 22-13-1 record with more than half of the losses coming in league, prepares the East County players for the next level.
“And that’s what it’s all about,” he said.