It was only fitting the Balboa and Lowell high school baseball teams happened to be on the same flight to San Diego on Monday morning to play in the 63rd annual Mike Morrow tournament.
The two squads sit atop the A Division of the Academic Athletic Association standings — Balboa is 7-0 and Lowell 6-0 — at the midway point of the league season, and they’ll be seeing plenty of each other before season’s end, including a back-to-back set on April 17-18 that will go a long way in not only determining the regular-season champion but seeding position in the playoffs.
“I was actually sitting next to [Balboa coach] Tom [Pontino] on the plane,” said John Donohue, who is in his 31st year as Lowell’s coach. “Even though we’re trying to beat each other, we’re friends.”
Even though Balboa and Lowell are the frontrunners, Donohue and Pontino said they expect two-time defending AAA champion Washington (5-2 in league) to be a major player for the championship. Balboa has already swept its two-game set with Washington, which has yet to play Lowell.
“We were fortunate to play Washington early,” Pontino said. “We just capitalized on their errors. They’re going to be tough to beat in the second half, and I’ll be rooting for them to beat Lowell.”
Lowell beat Balboa 11-0 in the Dick Murray tournament on March 4, but neither coach said the result was that important considering it doesn’t count in the league standings. As always, pitching depth will prove to be the X-factor down the stretch.
Balboa has four capable starters in Eli Smoot, Jeremy Wong, Dylan Bermingham and Liam Calanog. Smoot, who also plays the infield, is having another monster season. Through Tuesday, the junior was hitting .565, slugging .826, has 24 RBIs and drawn seven walks while not striking out a single time all season.
Lowell might have the richest pitching corps in the AAA, with Elijah Saunders, Noah Gould, Aaron Leung, Josef Mueller and Jasper Scherer all having pitched 10 innings or more with ERAs under 2.10. Washington’s pitching hasn’t been as dominant as Balboa’s or Lowell’s, but it has a workhorse in senior Chris Yee, who has pitched 23 innings over five solid starts.
Championship races come down to a variety of factors, but one thing is for certain: None of the teams are lacking for any motivation. Washington would love nothing more than to three-peat as AAA champions. Balboa, the two-time AAA tournament championship game runner-up, feels its time is now. And Lowell, perhaps the most talented team in the league, is looking to return to AT&T Park — the site of the AAA championship contest — for the first time in four years.