The rivalry between Wilson and Lakewood’s baseball teams is a well-documented, much-discussed sensation in the world of Long Beach sports. Occasionally, those conversations will turn to the really fun subject—what would happen if the two teams could pool their talent and resources? How unstoppable would a team filled with the area’s best players be?
Well, it looks like the Pac-12 is going to find out. Within 24 hours, the University of Southern California pulled off quite a recruiting coup, collecting verbal commitments from Wilson and Lakewood’s aces, and the two best high school pitchers in the city: Chase DeJong and Shane Watson.
The pair wreaked havoc on the CIF Southern Section last season, as they led their teams into the Division 1 semifinals. Neither team advanced to the championship, but that’s partially because neither pitcher was available to start in the Semis. To that point, they’d pitched a combined 32 innings in the toughest postseason bracket in high school baseball. DeJong and Watson’s line in their five postseason appearances warrants a double-take: two runs given up, 18 hits allowed, 31 batters struck out, and a 5-0 record. Their combined postseason ERA was 0.43.
In other words, these two pitchers are well qualified to represent the city, and they could end up as quite a “one-one punch” for the Trojans. After all, who could you call number two?
Ironically, though they’re friends off the field, both players say they had no idea they were going to end up as Trojans together. “No, it’s not like The Decision or anything,” joked DeJong. “We didn’t decide, ‘We’re taking our talents to South Central.’”
They talked at the Area Code tryouts just prior to their commitments, when neither was sure of where they were going. Then Saturday night, DeJong told USC baseball coach Frank Cruz and pitching coach Dan Hubbs he was coming to USC. The next afternoon, Watson sat in the Trojan baseball offices where he ended up making his commitment, and was surprised to learn that DeJong was among their recent verbals.
For DeJong, who was also considering Oregon, Texas, and the University of San Diego among others, it wasn’t a hard decision with Hubbs aboard. “I just felt at peace with it,” he said. DeJong was also glad to end the recruiting process, as it had been his plan all along to settle on a destination before his senior season so he could focus on baseball and school. “I took my first recruiting trip 18 months ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind this entire time,” he said. “I’m glad to have made the decision.”
Also key for DeJong was the fact that his family will be able to see all of his home starts, and the fact that he’ll have friends within the program to help with the transition to college life. Rio Ruiz from Bishop Amat, Jeremy Martinez from Mater Dei, and Christian Lopes from Edison were among the athletes DeJong already knew. As is, of course, Watson, who fulfilled a childhood dream by committing to USC.
“I remember watching their football games when I was five or six, and thinking, ‘I want to go there,’” he said. “And now it’s actually coming true.”
Watson, whose final choices were down to Long Beach State, Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona, also wanted to pick a school prior to his senior season. “That’s what (Lakewood coach Spud O’Neil) said was best, was to do it early,” said Watson. “Tyler Schultz committed to USF before his senior season, and he said it let him really just focus on his last year. It’s just ‘play baseball’ now.”
The only drawback, Watson said, was how difficult it was to tell other coaches he wasn’t choosing them. “Especially Long Beach State,” he said. “That was the hardest call I’ve ever had to make. It’s almost like telling your mom you want to switch moms.”
A major reason USC was so attractive was the recent addition of Hubbs as the pitching coach. Hubbs joined the Trojans on July 11th, fresh off a College World Series appearance with Cal, where he also handled pitchers. “And you know, we both want to go to Omaha and give USC a ring,” said a smiling Watson.
Of course, in the sport of baseball, college commitments always come with a big caveat: the Major League draft. Because players are drafted out of high school (unlike in football or basketball), it can create a difficult decision for high school players, who have to look at a guaranteed education and college experience on one side, and a shot at quick money and a life solely dedicated to baseball on the other.
That next decision, however, is eleven months away. For now, both DeJong and Watson say they’re very happy to be committed to USC, and very happy to not have to make any more decisions about their future for a while. Waiting until they found the right fit, but still making their commitments prior to their senior years of high school, means the pair can focus on that they want to focus on: baseball.
If last year was any indication, that’s a dangerous thing for the rest of the CIF Southern Section. And perhaps, beyond that, the entire Pac-12 Conference.
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