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Olympic Heights Finds Identity With Walk-Off Against Forest Hill

Alan Hernandez (8) leads the Olympic Heights Lions off the field after knocking in the walk-off run and celebrating.

The Olympic Heights Lions (2-1) found their identity Monday night during a gritty, 3-2, walk-off victory over the Forest Hill Falcons (1-3).

The Lions came up with back-to-back hits in the bottom of the seventh to break a 2-2 tie and win the ballgame, but baserunners were difficult to manufacture for most of the game. This was one of those classic high school games where it looks like there’s going to be an error every inning and the winner would be whichever team forced the last mistake, but the pitchers took over after four runs (three unearned) scored through the first inning and a half.

Nick Manning got the start for Olympic Heights and looked like a seasoned veteran despite only being a sophomore. A leadoff triple that eventually scored didn’t faze him, and neither did the unearned run that crossed that plate in the second to tie things up. Manning stayed cool through four innings and finished the night with six strikeouts, raising his season total up to 15 through 7 2/3 innings.

“I was named the ace of the team, but I’m not going to let that go to my head,” Manning said. “Fifteen through 7 and 2/3 is pretty good. I’m a sophomore. I’m just trying to go out there and compete with the best they have.”

When Manning came out of the game, Olympic Heights manager Willie Vizoso turned to another sophomore arm, left-hander Brandon Yospe. Although he’s scheduled to pitch later in the week, Vizoso talked to Yospe about coming in for an inning or two during this game and using it as a bullpen of sorts.

Yospe took the ball without hesitation and ran with it. He nearly pitched two consecutive 1-2-3 innings, but a leadoff walk in the sixth spoiled it. Collecting four strikeouts while facing just seven opposing batters is a fine way to make up for it, though.

Brandon Yospe on the mound for the Olympic Heights Lions

Yospe left the game after just 26 pitches, but the score was still tied at two and Vizoso was now turning to an even younger arm. Disaster struck almost immediately as a pair of errors and an intentional walk loaded the bases for freshman Camilo Castellon. Most first-year varsity arms would crumble under such pressure, but Castellon stood tall on the mound and retired each of the next three Falcons to step up to the plate.

Castellon said he tried to keep a clear mind when things got hairy, and he finally breathed a sigh of relief once there were two outs in the inning and no runs had scored yet. The strikeout to escape the jam was just the cherry on top of his first big moment at the varsity level. Naturally, Vizoso had nothing but praise for his young staff.

“Brandon Yospe, he came in and shut the door for two innings. That’s part of our three-headed monster that we talk about,” Vizoso said. “There are these three sophomores that are really, really special. He came in and did his job. He’s actually going to be pitching on Thursday, so for him to come in and get his work in like that and keep us in it was great. Then you add Camilo into it. Maybe it’s a fourth head?”

Olympic Heights’ pitching staff certainly impressed, but the best outing of the day might have come from Forest Hill’s Alejandro Ortiz. He threw six innings for the Falcons and struck out eight while walking just two and allowing five hits. Both runs that scored in the first were unearned, so it’s entirely fair to say that Ortiz pitched a gem despite the loss.

At 91 pitches, it would have been unfair to ask him to come back out for the seventh inning, and Forest Hill manager Russ Milliken said as much. Ortiz was only getting better (and more competitive) as the night went on, but he knew it was time to leave the game.

“When the coaches pull me out, it’s time to come out, you know,” Ortiz said. “They can’t overdo me. But it’s a competitive game and there’s going to be a little fire there.”

FHSAA rules would have prevented Ortiz from pitching too much longer anyway, so turning to the bullpen was really the only call Forest Hill could have made. Unfortunately, it was a costly call as well. Aneudy Rodriguez started the seventh for the Falcons, but he never ended up recording an out.

Alejandro Ortiz on the mound for the Forest Hill Falcons.

Rodriguez faced just two batters in the bottom of the seventh, senior Nico Velardi and junior Alan Hernandez. Both were at the top of the lineup in this one, but that hasn’t been the norm for the Lions over the first few games of the season. Vizoso said that Hernandez has been the lead-off hitter and Velardi had been the clean-up guy, but he decided to switch things up on Monday to see if it helped his team find its identity early in the season. It worked like a charm.

Velardi doubled to lead off the inning, and Hernandez quickly singled in the walk-off run to kick off the celebration in Boca Raton. It’s a big win for a Lions program that looks to be on the rise under its new manager. Vizoso praised the upperclassmen duo for their leadership and for getting the job done when the stakes were highest.

“Every hitter on this team is disciplined, but Alan and Nico, man, having them as a senior-junior combo is special,” he said. “Alan is able to learn from Nico, and Nico is a dog in every sense of the word. He just goes up there and plays nasty and he plays hard. Sometimes he might do a little too much, but that’s a kid who is going to play good JUCO baseball. He’s just a solid hitter.

“And Alan, it didn’t surprise me at all that he walked us off. That’s just who he is. He’s very disciplined at the plate, he’s very aggressive and I think tonight he became a leader.”

Vizoso admitted that he’s been looking for his team captain for a while, and Hernandez might have secured the job on Monday night with his leadership both on and off the field. Before delivering the final blow in the walk-off, Hernandez rallied his team emotionally in the dugout. Vizoso came back to his club ready to motivate, but he barely had to talk in the huddle once Hernandez took over. He’s found his captain.

“Before the inning even started, I told Nico that it would be over when we got to the plate,” Hernandez said. “I saw him go up there, get the double and it was over. The rest is history.”

Nico Velardi celebrates after scoring the winning run for Olympic Heights.

Hernandez ranked this win as the top moment of his high school career so far, but this is an Olympic Heights team that’s looking to make plenty of noise in 2023 and beyond. The Lions are taking things day by day, but now the team has a sense of identity behind it following this win.

“We emphasize to the boys this morning to win the day,” Vizoso said. “We’re not worrying about three or four games from now. We’re worrying about today, and we’re worrying about Thursday when Thursday comes. Like I said earlier, I think that them defining who they are as a team, this was a big momentum shift for them. Understanding what my job is in the lineup, who I am as a  player on this team and what my piece to this puzzle is, I think it’s going to help us move forward and this is how we’re going to do it.”

For Forest Hill, the loss means a 1-3 start that likely could have been avoided. Milliken sees the adjustments that need to be made with his team, though, and it shouldn’t take long for the Falcons to begin working on things in practice despite a busy schedule up ahead.

“We’ve just got to be a little more consistent defensively and at the top of the lineup,” Milliken said. “When you load up the bases with no outs, you’re supposed to score a run. At least, that’s the theory. So, we’re going to have to work on all of that — putting the bat on the ball, getting the bunt down making the routine plays — and we’ll bounce back the rest of the week.”

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