Last year’s San Marcos High baseball team poses for its first Channel League championship photo since 1996. The Royals have many key players back and are ranked No. 1 in the CIF-Southern Section’s Division 4 entering Friday’s league opener with rival Dos Pueblos. (Noozhawk Photo)
Mark Patton

Channel League baseball in the New Millennium had been one of those same old stories.

The drama seemed to be scripted only between the lines at the cross-town diamonds of Santa Barbara High’s Eddie Mathews Field and Dos Pueblos’ Scott O’Leary Field.

The Dons won or shared 11 championships in the last 22 complete seasons. They also qualified for the CIF-Southern Section playoffs in each of those 22 years.

The Chargers claimed 10 titles in that period and advanced to the postseason 17 straight seasons.

Santa Barbara graduated players like Virgil Vasquez and Ryan Spilborghs to UC Santa Barbara and then to Major League Baseball. DP’s James McCann and Gabe Speier followed them into the big leagues.

It was as if the league’s banquet table was only set for a party of two.

Their shared dominance had been a Royal headache for the other public high school of the greater Santa Barbara area. San Marcos alum Wesley Ghan-Gibson took over a Royals’ program last year that hadn’t flown a banner at Joe Mueller Field since his birth year of 1996.

But he had a message for this season’s large legion of returnees after their breakout, championship season of 2021.

“I told our boys, ‘You’re a special group that, at this time and place, all decided to go to San Marcos,’” Ghan-Gibson told Noozhawk. “Our goal is to win Channel League. Our goal is to win more games in the playoffs.

“And they’ve put in a ton of work to put themselves in a good spot for that.”

That spot is now atop the CIF-Southern Section rankings as the No. 1 team of Division 4.

Tough Act to Follow

Chase Hoover, last year’s Channel League Pitcher of the Year, is back on the mound for San Marcos High this season.

Chase Hoover, last year’s Channel League Pitcher of the Year, is back on the mound for San Marcos High this season. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk file photo)

There was enough drama during the last week of last year’s Channel League race to fill the next millennium.

DP, just one strike away from defeat in the Wednesday game at San Marcos, forced a winner-take-all Friday by rallying for a 4-3 win on Joe Talarico’s single.

But Nicky Fell’s game-winning hit helped the Royals complete their own comeback in a wild, 10-inning classic at DP that gave them their first title in a quarter-century.

Talarico, Fell and most of last year’s cast of characters are back. San Marcos, which finished 12-3 in league and 19-5 overall, returns eight seniors.

DP (16-8), which tied Santa Barbara for second at 11-4, has a dozen back plus junior Ryan Speshyock, last year’s Channel League Player of the Year. The Dons (14-8) also have a healthy mixture of seasoned veterans and talented youth.

It’s whipped up an appetizing recipe for another epic food fight at that Channel League banquet table.

“I hope it’s like that again,” Chargers coach George Hedricks said. “It means we are playing good and meaningful ball down the stretch, which is what you want as a coach.

“Many of these guys have been friends, teammates, classmates since elementary school. We have 12 seniors so there are many preexisting relationships already there. Competing and practicing together for the last several months helps cement those bonds.”

Familiarity with the opposition has added spice to the menu. That even includes Ghan-Gibson, who played for Santa Barbara High coach Steve Schuck when he was a member of the Santa Barbara Foresters’ summer collegiate team.

“These kids have all grown up together and know each other well,” Schuck said. “I think it really adds to the intensity of the rivalry games.”

Tony Sandoval, the father of Royals’ catcher Joaquin Sandoval, has been an assistant coach for the Royals since his older son, Diego, came to San Marcos in 2016. But he saw this era of Santa Barbara-area baseball coming much earlier when his sons were in Little League.

“I remember coaching the Goleta Valley South 8-and-under All-Stars against the Dos Pueblos Little League, and it was Chase Hoover against Kellan Montgomery,” he said. “Here we are, 10 years later, and they could very well square off against each other this year.”

Hoover committed to TCU even before he won last year’s Channel League Pitcher of the Year Award for the Royals. He posted a won-loss record of 7-1 with an earned run average of 0.82, and 92 strikeouts in 51.1 innings.

Montgomery, who went 6-1 on the mound while batting .338 for DP, has accepted an offer from Long Beach State.

Ryan Speshyock, pitching ace of the Dos Pueblos High baseball team, won Channel League Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2021.

Ryan Speshyock, pitching ace of the Dos Pueblos High baseball team, won Channel League Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2021. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk file photo)

“Ironically enough, Montgomery, Hoover, Ryan Speshyock, Joaquin Sandoval and Joe Talarico all played on the same summer team in eighth grade,” Sandoval said of the Goleta rivals.

“The boys all know each other very well.”

Mounds of Talent

The Royals’ deep pitching staff includes all-leaguers such as junior Cole Schoenwetter — a UCSB commit — Aidan Mandel, Emmett Speake, and the do-everything Fell. He started last year’s championship game on the mound and then ended it with his tie-breaking hit.

Sandoval, Lance Bermudes and Nathan Lynk — all starters on San Marcos’ baseball team — were also among the Royals’ top football players last fall. Mandel, a .392-hitting shortstop, just rejoined the team after leading San Marcos’ basketball team to a league title and the second round of the CIF playoffs.

“There are some kids who have made sacrifices with other sports and decided to just play baseball, but I’d never, ever preach that,” said Ghan-Gibson, a three-sport athlete during his own playing days at San Marcos. “I love my multiple-sport athletes.

“Playing just baseball is a decision they have to make on their own … You’ve got to tip your cap to that.”

Fell, Hoover and Sandoval — a four-year starter at catcher who has committed to play baseball at Lewis & Clark — serve as San Marcos’ captains.

“Those guys are our backbone,” Ghan-Gibson said. “Each one brings a different skill set. When those guys talk, we listen.”

His Star Trek Next Generation —juniors Owen Estabrook, Daren Orlando, Caden Hodina and Brendon Cekada, as well as sophomore Steven Bradley — have already had big moments during the first two weeks of the season.

“It’s been interesting, mixing in this new group,” Ghan-Gibson said.

Revving Up the Rivalries

Santa Barbara High’s Jack Holland scores for the Dons’ baseball team last season.

Santa Barbara High’s Jack Holland scores for the Dons’ baseball team last season. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk file photo)

Montgomery is just one of the many stars in DP’s galaxy. Speshyock, a junior pitcher and infielder, has already accepted an offer from college baseball powerhouse Stanford. He and San Marcos’ Schoenwetter were among the pitchers selected to USA Baseball’s 16U/17U National Team Development Program last summer.

“Our starting rotation of Kellan Montgomery, Jordan Rico and Ryan Speshyock will be a foundation for us,” Hedricks said.

Rico, Ethan Rodriguez, Josh Brennan and Talarico — a middle infielder who is still busy with DP’s CIF semifinalist basketball team — are also among the Chargers’ returning all-leaguers.

“We have gone from three seniors last year to 12 this year,” Hendricks said. “That leadership and experience mixed with our talent should make for a good season.

“If we can finish toward the top of the league, we have a good chance in the playoffs with our pitching staff.”

Santa Barbara returns its all-league battery of pitcher Juan Perez and catcher Vince Gamberdella. The Dons’ other returning all-leaguers are Dane Dawson, Jack Holland and Cal Wipf. Gamberdella and Kia Zukor serve as the team’s senior captains.

But Schuck has also thrown several freshmen into the fray of the season-opening Easton Tournament, an elite event in which both San Marcos and DP are also testing themselves.

“We do have some young players, experience-wise,” Schuck said. “We may adjust our roster to give some others an opportunity if they are succeeding at their current level.”

The No. 1 Priority

Ghan-Gibson said his Royals reveled in their No. 1 ranking for “only about 10 seconds.”

“We don’t care where we start, it’s where we finish that matters,” he said.

It won’t be easy to finish No. 1 in the Channel League, let alone Division 4. San Marcos and DP will play a rematch of last year’s championship showdown when they open conference play against each other on Friday at Joe Mueller Field.

“The talent in this town is unbelievable,” Ghan-Gibson said. “Every game is going to be a dogfight.

“These three Channel League teams — and Santa Ynez is going to be good this year, too — all want to win, they all have common goals, and I love it. It’s great for the league. It’s great for the town. I think it’s beautiful. It’s just how it should be.”

The party is more fun, after all, with more at the table.

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at The opinions expressed are his own.