Sacred Heart Cathedral pitcher Owen Stevenson pitches in the eighth inning of a continued playoff game against Aragon at Half Moon Bay High School in Half Moon Bay, Calif. on May 17, 2019. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

USF Dons baseball signs 12 to National Letters of Intent

Nino Giarratano’s signing class includes two San Francisco prep stars

Needing to replace two starting outfielders, an entire weekend rotation and a closer, the University of San Francisco baseball team desperately needed to reload on arms with its 2020 recruiting class.

It was the perfect offseason to bring in a recruiting ace in pitching coach Matt Keplinger, who helped close a jumbo 12-man class, including six pitchers he’ll get to break in next fall.

While those six pitchers, catcher Tyler Imbach and the one-time Oregon State pledge Jared Breedwell may draw most of the attention in the class that signed earlier this month, it’s the first time in years that head coach Nino Giarratano can remember bringing in multiple players from San Francisco schools in the same class. It’s a sign that the Dons are on the rise.

“I think obviously it’s awesome to have those two guys,” Giarratano said of Sacred Heart Cathedral pitcher Owen Stevenson and versatile St. Ignatius utility man Mario Demera. “Mario, I think he’s a hidden gem, same thing with Owen. I think both guys were so happy to be close to home, and it’s always great to have local kids want to come to USF and play baseball for us. I couldn’t tell you how remarkable the two kids are.’

The last time Giarratano brought in two San Francisco freshmen was the class of 2013, with his son Nico and fellow former St. Ignatius star Mack Meyer.

“It’s been a really long time,” Giarratano said. “To have two kids like Mario and Owen in this class is really big for us.

“I’m just so excited that USF is at that point where we can attract the best local kids. I think in Owen’s situation, he’s going to be a starter for us.”

Stevenson has already won some big games for the Irish, but didn’t commit until late in the process. He committed in large part thanks to Keplinger, who’s certified by famed pitching lab Driveline, which teaches a framework for the pitching delivery, the basics of their drill work (and easy modifications based on assessment data) and provides year-round programming templates and modifications.

“Huge impact,” Giarratano said. “I think the passion that Matt has for the game, being certified with Driveline — that’s the new phase of pitching, and everyone wants to be healthy — it’s been really big for us to be able to have him and I think that’s had a lot to do with the signees the last year.”

The class put together by Keplinger and associate head coach/recruiting coordinator Troy Nakamura, Giarratano said, may be his best yet. They’ll have to be, in order to replace the likes of ace Riley Ornido, starter Grant Nechak, senior lefty Grant Young, catchers Robert Emery and Chase Hodkinson, right-handed starter Landen Bourassa, and the already-graduated starter Scott Parker and closer Joey Steele.

Said Giarratano: “We’re probably going to have a good eight players off this recruiting class that will make an impact on next year’s team.”

Kaleb Woltz, RHP, Aurora (Colo.) Cherokee Trail (6-2, 185): Woltz is the latest product of the staff’s relationship with the Colorado Slammers club team, which produced shortstop Jack Winkler, outfielder Harris Williams and Kasey Kopplema in recent classes.

“We’ve been really fortunate to get really good players from them,” Giarratano said. “We went back to them, and got a wonderful recommendation by them, and we really like what we see: A big, physical, strong right-handed pitcher who commands three pitches, is going to pitch around 90 mph with a breaking ball and a plus changeup. He’s a great competitor.”

Woltz creates occasional running life through the zone with his fastball, topping out at 87 mph. His changeup features sharp, fading life, and he also has a sweeping 10-4 curveball. Able to land all pitches for strikes, he was named to the 2019 Rocky Mountain Showcase Top Prospect List.

Elijah Tolsma, RHP, Torrance (Calif.) Bishop Montgomery (6-1, 170): San Francisco saw Tolsma and catcher Tyler Imbach together on their club team, and they could develop together as a very effective tandem on the Hilltop.

Tolsma sits 86-90 with the fastball, has command with his breaker and a developing changeup.

“He’s competed at a very high level in high school,” Giarratano said. ‘We needed to replace six arms off of this year’s team, and he’s a guy who can really step in and help replace some of those innings that we’re going to lose. We could lose close to 400 innings off of this year’s team.”

He went 4-0 with a 0.23 ERA in nine appearances this season, striking out 41 in 30 2/3 innings with just four walks, and holding opposing hitters to a .140 average.

Owen Stevenson, RHP, Sacred Heart Cathedral (6-3, 170): A big-time performer in big-time games, Stevenson will barely have to change the shade of his socks in moving just a few blocks from Sacred Heart Cathedral to the Hilltop.

“Next year, we lose all three starters and a closer, so he’s got a chance to work in there as a starter as a freshman, just by the command of his fastball, but a lot of that will remain to be seen as the year goes on,” Giarratano said. “The one thing about Owen is that he’s so consistent. The command of the fastball is so consistent that we’re really excited about him.”

Stevenson went 6-3 with a 2.60 ERA, striking out 40, walking 26 and serving as arguably the Irish’s most valuable arm in the playoffs as a junior. He finished off an extra-inning game against Aragon — a game that was suspended due to weather then continued two days later and 12 miles southwest in Half Moon Bay. Then, he saved a 2-1 nailbiter against Willow Glen at USF’s Benedetti Diamond and pitched a complete-game shutout to send the Irish to the Central Coast Section Division II final.

“He’s been able to win big games, and winning is important when you get to the next level,” Giarratano said. “We’re excited about that, but the thing with Owen is that it’s so easy. It comes out of there nice and easy at 85 to 87, not a whole lot of effort, the breaking ball’s plenty good and he throws it to both sides of the plate.”

Stevenson has an 86-88 mph fastball with angle to the glove side, a 71-72 mph curve, a sweeping 74-75 mph slider and a 77-78 mph changeup with arm-side run. He has an easy arm action and a rangy frame with a lot of room to project, physically.

Nick Naccarato, OF/UTIL, Carlsbad (Calif.) Sage Creek (5-11, 168): A versatile left-handed bat with a 6.81 60-yard time, Naccarato is an aggressive fielder with a strong arm, topping out at 86 mph throwing to a bag from the outfield. Naccarato is a hard-line-drive hitter coming out of a crouch with a quick leg kick and fast hands, and was named to the 2019 West Academic Showcase Top Prospect List by Perfect Game USA.

“Probably one of the best bat-to-ball left-handed hitters in the class, and in the state of California,” Giarratano said. “We were excited to get him. He got recruited by everybody you could think of, and we were able to sneak him away based on our relationship, and USF the school, the City. He’s a kid who could hit in the top of the order for us.”

Giarratano figured that Naccarato could hit first or second, and could be setting the table as early as the 2021 season, with Tyler Villaroman graduating in 2020.

“He’s got some speed, he’s got some defensive ability,” Giarratano said. “I think the offensive piece is way ahead for him.”

Naccarato played two years of basketball before choosing to focus on baseball (playing 18 varsity basketball games as a sophomore), and it’s probably wise that he did, as he averaged just 2.8 points per game. In his first season playing baseball full-time this past spring, he played in 33 games and hit .375, driving in 20 runs with a .446 OBP and an eye-popping 27 stolen bases on 29 attempts.

Trevor Meisner, RHP, Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman (6-2, 175): Meisner and Stevenson are similar, in that both can command the fastball, and though neither throws particularly hard, they both have room to fill out and get into the high-80s or low-90s. Like Stevenson, Meisner has also won big games.

He tossed a complete-game one-hitter in the postseason last spring against Las Vegas-Spring Valley, striking out seven and walking two. In the regular-season finale, he also tossed three one-hit innings, fanning four to clinch a second-place finish in the 4A Desert Region-Southwest. He finished the season 5-1 in nine appearances with a sparkling 1.73 ERA in 36 1/3 innings, striking out 35 to 23 walks and holding opposing hitters to a .160 batting average.

“He’s going to add a lot of depth to where we want to be,” Giarratano said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

Meisner has a solid, fundamental delivery with a good line to the plate with his hips, and he uses his lower half well. He’s topped out at 88 with his fastball, and showed an 11-5 curve shape that has good depth. He also has a slider that works well, and changeup that can be a very good pitch for him.

“Coach Nakamura has had a really good relationship with the coaches at Bishop Gorman, and that’s helped us a lot, and with him coming on board, it’s opened up a bigger area for us,” Giarratano said.

Aidan Lee, RHP/1B, Gilroy (Calif.) Monte Vista Christian (6-4, 220): A big power-type arm who could wind up as a two-way player (he hit .339 last season in 21 games, with seven doubles and a homer, so he’s a capable bat), Lee is a tantalizing physical prospect.

Currently sitting between 87 and 89 with his fastball, his frame suggests he could get up into the low-to-mid-90s given a college weight training program. He also features a curve (66-68), a changeup (76-77) and a slider (70-74). His fastball, when it’s on, has considerable sink out of his high-3/4 arm slot, which plays well off of that slider.

Lee’s mechanics could use some work, which would increase his velocity and add consistency, since he has to drop down in velocity to steal strikes when his control gets squirrelly, but his development should be exciting to watch.

“The velocity has a chance to jump up, but he’s got a really nice breaking ball and he’s big and strong and has got the chance to carry the load as a starter,” Giarratano said. “We feel like, in the future, for us, he probably profiles as a starting pitcher.”

Lee went 3-2 last season with a 3.77 ERA in eight appearances (26 innings) according to Maxpreps, striking out 26 and walking 13 while giving up 30 hits.

Luke Keaschall, SS/MIF, Watsonville (Calif.) Aptos (6-0, 165): Another top-of-the-lineup type who has clocked a 6.95-second 60, Keaschall is an athletic, versatile defender with a very high baseball IQ — beating balls to spots from shortstop — and a quick bat. From all indications, a real scrapper.

“He’s a great baseball player, he’s got great energy, plays the game hard,” Giarratano said. “He’s a dynamic person, who, you mix him in there with the rest of the guys, he’s got a chance to be a really good player for us, whether that’s at shortstop, second base [or third], I think he can play all three. Runs well, but defensively and offensively, his attitude is probably his bonus. He brings that mentality, that competitive mentality that we’re looking for.”

This past season for the 21-7-1 Mariners, Keaschall batted a team-leading .395 in 26 games in a team-leading 105 plate appearances. He also led the team in RBIs (30), doubles (5), triples (4) and home runs (3), with 14 walks and four hit-by-pitches (both team-highs) to just two strikeouts for a team-leading .495 OBP and a team-leading 1.146 OPS. He also stole 25 bases on 25 attempts — both team-highs, as nobody else was in double-digits in attempts.

“He’s not afraid; he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and that’s always good when you play at a place like USF,” Giarratano said.

Max Jones, RHP, San Diego (Calif.) Patrick Henry (6-1, 195): Jones made a big splash in his first season on varsity in 2018, recording a 2.86 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. He was a major piece of the Patriots’ rotation this past spring, going 7-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 15 games (14 starts) with 86 strikeouts to 46 walks in 77 innings of work.

“Max is a perfect competitor for us,” Giarratano said. “He came to a camp for us at the end of the summer, throwing it 86-87, plus changeup, really good competitor.”

Jones will likely start out in the bullpen as a freshman, and with the Dons losing some big relief arms after this season, he could very well be charged with getting some big outs in 2021.

Tyler Imbach, C, Palos Verdes Estates (Calif.) Palos Verdes (6-1, 180): One of the longest-tenured commits in the class (committing in May), Imbach helped build the class — in part getting Tolsma to pull the trigger — and is one of the class’s biggest names, betting early draft buzz.

“I think it’s really important to have those leadership skills and maybe have that name that Imbach brings with him,” Giarratano said. “He’s going to be a player in the draft that’s going to be sought after pretty highly. I hope he hold on to him and get him to USF. Good players always attract even better players, and that’s the piece that we’re most excited about.”

Imbach has the inside track to be the starting catcher or the backup as soon as he gets to campus, by virtue of his strong left-handed bat, and the matriculation of both Robert Emery and Chase Hodkinson after this season.

Imbach has a long, athletic frame that’s very projectable, and a smooth left-handed stroke. He’s stronger to the pull side and has a quick bat to turn on inside pitches, but has shown a good gap-to-gap approach and flashes some power. He hit .315 last season with 19 RBIs in 27 games, four doubles and a team-leading five homers.

Behind the plate, he’s recorded a pop time as quick as 2.0 seconds and does a nice job keeping the running game at bay, having thrown out 11 would-be base stealers on the season. He shows quick footwork and quick hands. Prep Baseball Report said of Imbach: “He is a wall behind the plate and handles the staff.”

Cameron Faris, SS/3B Castro Valley (6-1, 185): An all-around athlete with a strong arm, Faris will compete with Keaschall for the starting shortstop spot when he arrives on campus.

Agile with active footwork, Faris has a quick, clean exchange and a loose arm action.

“Super strong athlete, superstar athlete,” Giarratano said. “He’s a kid who kind of flew under the radar, can really run, can throw, is going to hit for some power, has a chance to compete for that starting shortstop job as a freshman. Him and Keaschall will compete very hard for that job.”

Offensively, Faris has explosive bat speed with a smooth swing path, good hips-hands coordination and the ability to drive the ball with power. Last spring, he hit .353 with four doubles and a homer in 18 games, striking out just six times in 60 plate appearances.

Mario Demera, 3B/OF, St. Ignatius (6-1, 185): A versatile athlete who can play all over the diamond, Demera has a medium frame with broad shoulders and looks to be able to add more strength. He’s got quick hands and a strong arm (80 mph from shortstop to first) with a compact motion, stays low on the ball in the field and is developing range to each side.

He’s got a pretty swing — upright with a quick left leg trigger, works to contact with a rotational lower half and has a loose, level path through the ball — and a line-drive, up-the-middle approach.

“He’s going to be able to play any of the infield positions, could move to the outfield, he’s probably going to be able to hit in our lineup starting as a freshman,” Giarratano said. “We’re extremely excited to have him.”

Last season, Demera missed a month with a fractured hand, but finished hitting .317 with seven doubles, a homer, 22 runs, nine RBIs and nine stolen bases in 18 games. He was even better this summer, going 9-for-15 in the Perfect Game World Series in Arizona with a triple and two doubles.

Jared Breedwell, OF, Vacaville (6-0, 180): A former Oregon State commit, Breedwell signed with the Dons after a coaching change in Corvallis, and will challenge right away for some playing time in the outfield.

“They reconsidered, and so did he,” Giarratano said. “I think a lot of that obviously with Matt [Keplinger] coaching in NorCal Baseball, we developed a great relationship with the Breedwells, and that helped us open the door, and from there, we sold him on our culture and the education of USF, and it worked out to be a good thing.”

San Francisco will be losing outfielders Jacob Westerman, Tyler Villaroman and Jacob Munoz after next year, meaning Breedwell and Naccarato will get a lot of playing time as freshmen. Breedwell has the stronger arm between him and Naccarato, which probably means he’s eventually destined for right field. Nick Yovetich played the bulk of innings in right last year, and will do the same this year, but as a senior, he’ll likely move to center to take over for Villaroman and make room for Breedwell.

“I see him being able to step in and play one of those outfield positions as a freshman,” Giarratano said. “We have a really nice group of freshman outfielders that we bring in — Naccarato and Breedwell — but Breedwell’s got a chance to be a right fielder and play for a long time.”

In 38 varsity games over two seasons, the right-handed-swinging Breedwell has hit .387 with a .515 OBP, 18 RBIs, 10 doubles and two triples. He’s walked 27 times and struck out 19, swiping 10 bases in 17 attempts.

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