The Liberty High baseball team has overcome inconsistency at the plate in recent weeks to help move into a three-way tie for first place in the Bay Valley Athletic League.
But nothing's been tougher to overcome for the Lions than the death of a friend -- a coach who connected with the players.
The unexpected death of Liberty assistant James Anthony Brignolio, 42, in mid-February shocked and saddened the East County baseball community.
Brignolio was known by the players in all three levels of the Liberty program. But he had a special connection with the seniors, beginning when they were freshmen during an earlier stint with the program. He had left Liberty to coach the freshman team at Freedom before he returned to the Lions.
"It's been a slow process. Obviously, he's been missed," said first-year Liberty coach Joe Vreonis, who was a teammate of Brignolio at Liberty. "His wife threw out the first pitch at one of our games. We're trying to move on the best we can and keep winning games."
Including Tuesday's win over Deer Valley, Liberty had won six of its past eight games to improve to 10-11 overall and 5-2 in the BVAL.
The Lions have had good pitching for most of the season with seniors Mitchell Zamora, Cody Luther and Matt Davis leading the way. Those three players, and juniors RJ Prince, Dominic Smith and CJ Sneath, among others, have also helped the offense, as the Lions have averaged 6.6 runs in their last eight games.
All of it has helped Liberty join the BVAL title race, as it is tied with Deer Valley and Heritage for first with three games left. The Lions play at Pittsburg on Thursday and close the regular season against Heritage and Freedom next week.
Obviously, nothing would feel better than winning a league title for a coach they cared about.
"I think the team has dedicated their season to Coach Brignolio," Vreonis said. "They're trying to move on as best they can, keeping him in their hearts and minds as we try to push forward. He loved Liberty baseball."
HOOPER ADDED TO ALL-STAR ROSTER: De La Salle ace Justin Hooper is one of 36 players nationwide to be selected for the 2014 Under Armour All-America baseball game.
The junior left-hander has a 1.50 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 28 innings this season for the Spartans, who are heavily in the mix for the East Bay Athletic League title.
The all-star game will be Aug. 16 at Chicago's Wrigley Field and will be televised by the MLB Network the following day. The game is part of a four-day event that also includes a formal workout for major league scouts.
THE WILD WACC: When the West County Athletic League softball playoffs get under way next week, it's anyone's guess as to which team takes home the title.
Few leagues in the area can match the parity in the WACC.
Two of the hottest squads entering the week were Bishop O'Dowd and Castro Valley, but both had their winning streaks snapped Tuesday.
Castro Valley, the defending WACC champion, couldn't hold an early lead and lost its first league game of the season to Berkeley 2-1. The Trojans are still in line to earn the regular season Foothill Division title, though.
O'Dowd, which hadn't lost since March 28, gave up four runs in the bottom of the sixth and fell to Encinal 8-4.
But O'Dowd had been playing its best softball of the season before that loss. During a nine-game unbeaten streak, the Dragons avenged earlier losses to Arroyo and Encinal, two more teams that could do some damage in the playoffs. Alameda is also a contender.
O'Dowd and Castro Valley play each other Friday to wrap up the regular season.
Staff writer Stephanie Hammon contributed to this report.