Gabe Juarez, who is 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, has hit four home runs while playing in his first season of varsity baseball as a 16-year-old junior for Reseda Cleveland.
“This guy has probably the most power I’ve seen in all my days of coaching,” Cleveland coach Sid Lopez said.
During batting practice, he has been hitting so many baseballs into a construction area in left field that Lopez looks like he’s on an Easter egg hunt searching for them.
“We can’t find the baseballs,” he said. “He’s probably going to make Cleveland money in the long run because if he makes it, I expect him to donate baseballs for the ones we lost.”
One construction worker wearing a protective hat dropped by the baseball field on Monday and said, "I almost got hit by one of his balls."
Juarez was the football team’s starting quarterback as a sophomore, but since the Cavaliers ran the double wing, his main job was handing the ball to running backs. He decided not to play football this spring while keeping his commitment to baseball.
“It wasn’t fair to the football team and not fair to baseball if I didn’t put my best effort in either one,” he said.
He put on 20 pounds in a year’s time and switched from third base to catcher, a position he had not played since Little League. He has a new appreciation for the toll on the body catchers must endure.
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “Now I see how hard it is.”
He has hit balls over fences at Cleveland, Lake Balboa Birmingham and Woodland Hills Taft this season for the Cavaliers (13-3), who are seeded No. 2 in the City Section Open Division playoffs. They play Chatsworth at home on Friday.
“I try to hit the ball as hard as I can on a line,” he said. "If I get ahold of it, I get ahold of it.”
Lopez said he increased the height of fences at Cleveland after he arrived in 2016 from six feet to 10 feet, and there have been only five home runs hit since. Juarez has two of them.
Juarez has motivation to succeed every game because his mother, Maria, watches from a wheelchair cheering him on. She’s been dealing with cancer since he was in sixth grade. She keeps fighting, which serves as a reminder for Juarez on how to approach life.
“She’s a trooper,” Juarez said. “Lucky we have a great support system. It’s been rough, but we have a lot of people on my side. If I can succeed while she’s around, I’ll be a happy guy.”
Cleveland was one of the unluckiest teams last season when COVID-19 ended the baseball season in March. Lopez had perhaps the most experienced team in the City Section with 17 seniors ready to make a bid to win a title.
This season, he's had to transform 11 former junior varsity players into varsity-caliber contributors. They've been getting better every week while relying on senior leadership from Braden Lowe, Andrew Howe and Kai Moran.
Juarez continues to play a huge role batting as the cleanup hitter.
Junior varsity coach Larry Baca remembers Juarez apologizing whenever he didn't get a hit.
"Hey coach, I promise I'll get a hit next time," he'd tell Baca.
Don't ever doubt what Juarez is capable of doing.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.