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Rio Mesa’s Soliz all-in with Oaks

Boy is catching a ball.
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© Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Conejo Oaks infielder Taylor Hansen, a Camarillo High graduate, snags a ground ball in the hole during a recent practice. The Oaks is made up primarily of players from the surrounding communities. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
David Soliz isn’t a James Bond villain.

He doesn’t ask for the world.

Soliz wants two things this summer for the Conejo Oaks wood-bat baseball team.

“Goal No. 1 is to improve,” said Soliz, the Oaks’ second-year manager. “Goal No. 2 is to win, no matter who we put out there.”

Players aren’t here to lollygag. These guys are putting in work.

Before home outings at George “Sparky” Anderson Field at California Lutheran University’s Ullman Stadium in Thousand Oaks, the Oaks’ infielders and outfielders spend extra time training.

After 13 pitchers adorned last year’s roster, the Oaks started this summer with 18 arms ready to toe the rubber.

For the first time since the team’s founding in 2006, eight visiting ballplayers will stay with five host families.

“We’re still predominantly a local-based team,” said Soliz, Rio Mesa High’s 13th-year skipper who also teaches U.S. history and government at the school.

“We’re branching out.”

The team’s goal is to qualify for the National Baseball Classic World Series in Wichita, Kan., this August.

The Oaks feature 15 players from Agoura, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Simi Valley, Camarillo and Moorpark.

Established in 2006, the Oaks are sponsored by the Amateur Baseball Development Group Inc., a nonprofit co-founded by Los Angeles Angels manager and Conejo Valley resident Mike Scioscia.

Verne Merrill and Randy Riley share general manager responsibilities.

Dalton Saberhagen, a crafty southpaw from Calabasas, recently completed his second season at the University of Tennessee.

His goal this summer is simple: Get better.

“I want to log some innings and throw strikes,” Saberhagen said. “I don’t light up the radar gun. I’m all right as long as I keep my pitches down.”

A communications major with the Volunteers, Saberhagen throws fastballs, changeups and sliders for strikes.

He’s pumped to don the Conejo Oaks uniform.

“We have a great coaching staff,” Saberhagen said. “It’s great to play for them. They want you to get better. That means a lot to me.”

Evan Ocello, a Camarillo resident who played at Oaks Christian, recently completed his freshman campaign roaming right field at Holy Cross.

Ocello is working on all facets of his game, including hitting, footwork on steals and throwing more accurately from the outfield.

“This will be fun,” said Ocello, a pre-med concentration student at Holy Cross. “I’m excited to play with friends, swing the wood bat, face good competition and have some fun.”

Landon Hunt, a left-handed pitcher from Moorpark, is a veteran with the Oaks. This is Hunt’s third summer with the squad.

The former Musketeer completed his first season with the Long Beach State Dirtbags, who missed the playoffs by one game.

Hunt previously pitched at Moorpark College.

“I’m definitely being more consistent with my offspeed pitches, changeups and curveballs,” Hunt said. “I’m trying to throw more fastballs, and I want to get more consistent with my curveball.”

Hunt, who’s studying sports psychology, said he will try to earn a starting spot in the Long Beach State rotation as a senior in 2013.

Kevin Minjares, formerly of Camarillo High, is one of the Oaks’ biggest success stories.

He’s proud to say he stands 5-foot-7—not 5-foot-8 as listed on the roster—and considers his stature to be a badge of honor.

Minjares toiled for two seasons at Oxnard College to earn a scholarship with the Division I Oregon Ducks.

“As a young kid I dreamed of playing at a big school,” Minjares said. “This is something I worked my whole life for, since I was 3 years old.

“Now, I’m here.”

Minjares’ brother, Michael, played baseball at Gonzaga.

The 5-foot-6 Michael Minjares— considered a mentor by his younger brother—coaches at St. Bonaventure.

Kevin Minjares is a defensive ace at shortstop. The sparkplug finds ways to get on base, boasting a .430 on-base percentage in 140 plate appearances last season with Oxnard.

Tyler Abbott, a 2010 Royal graduate, is another pitcher who’s trying to improve on the bump.

After a strong high school career with the Highlanders, Abbott said he’s had his ups and downs in college.

“After high school, I struggled,” said Abbott, who just completed his redshirt freshman year at Oxnard College.

“I feel my command’s slowly coming back.”

When he’s in the zone, the 6-foot-3 lefty mixes up pitches and keeps batters guessing.

“I really want to dial in on my command,” Abbott said. “I want to throw out of a windup more consistently.”

Thousand Oaks resident Sean Fisher played prep baseball at Crespi, winning a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 championship in 2009 with the Celts at Angel Stadium.

Fisher is two-year captain and outfielder at Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis.

“I’m excited to be here,” said Fisher, a first-year Oaks player. “I want to become a better baseball player the next two months.”

Fisher is a fitness specialist. He’s been active in crossfit for three years, and he hopes to eventually open a crossfit gym.

Cody Kurz, a right-handed pitcher from Oxnard College and St. Bonaventure, is a rising star.

Primarily a first baseman/designated hitter in high school, Kurz started throwing recently with the aid of pitching coaches Matthew Merricks and Steve Hernandez.

Kurz’s fastball is in the 92-95 mile per hour range out of the stretch.

“I feel like I’m progressing a lot,” said Kurz, who was drafted this week by the Oakland A’s.

Other area players on the roster include Luke Eubank (Newbury Park/Cal State Los Angeles), Jordan Brower (Newbury Park/ Cal Poly), Taylor Hansen (Camarillo/ Oxnard College), Sean Houlihan (Moorpark/Oxnard College), Jacob Mahan (Camarillo/ Arkansas), Zach Mercer (Agoura), Vito Messina (Royal/Oxnard College), Aaron Roth (Cornerstone Christian/CLU), Seth Spivack (Calabasas/Cal-Berkeley) and Lucas Steagall (Thousand Oaks/ UC Santa Barbara).

Joey Garcia and Steve Hernandez assist Soliz.

“I love being out here. This is fun,” Minjares said. “It’s definitely like family out here. This is my home.”

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