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By Steve Breazeale
When Clemente Bonilla hung up his baseball cleats for good in 2006, he was eager to try his hand at coaching. The switch-hitting middle infielder out of El Toro High had decided that five years in professional baseball was enough.
Bonilla, 33, landed the head coaching job at small, relatively unknown Capistrano Valley Christian that same year. What he found was a program that had been somewhat competitive, but not to the degree that Bonilla knew they could be. By infusing his own knowledge of the game and bringing along decades of experience in the form of his assistant coaches, Bonilla has transformed the Eagles into a contender.
In seven short years, Bonilla and the Eagles have compiled a 122-60-2 overall record, with five trips to the CIF-SS playoffs on their resume. Last year the team made it all the way to the CIF-SS Division 6 Championship game for the first time ever.
One would be hard pressed to find a team in the area with as much professional experience as the current Eagles coaching staff, which includes Bonilla’s father Clemente Bonilla Sr., a former second-round draft pick in Ryan Jones and Capo Valley Christian alum John Miles. Combined they have nearly 30 years of experience playing at the highest of levels and the Eagles players have been soaking up as much information as possible.
“You learn so much as far as the mental side of the game … They’ve done a really god job in making us understand that we need to play games against ourselves,” said senior pitcher Aaron Anast, who leads the team with five wins. “That’s how we go into every game, whether that outcome is a win or a loss, we go and play a game against ourselves.”
Anast described how the team has taken on the mindset of being accountable for each other, comparing and contrasting stats to make sure they are performing at the right level.
One way in which Bonilla has changed the way his players think involved something as simple as scheduling. When he got there, year-round baseball did not exist. Players reported in the spring but did not play in the fall or winter. Bonilla quickly changed that.
Players were also encouraged to think long-term. Bonilla brought in his father and Jones, who was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993, to help the players map out their baseball careers, be it at the high school level or beyond.
The method paid off last year, when former Eagles pitcher Sam Eichler became the first player in school history to go straight to Division 1 out of high school. Eichler currently pitches for East Tennessee State University.
“The success is because of the fall and winter schedules and because the kids themselves are buying into it and working hard and believing that they can achieve at a higher level,” Bonilla said.
This season is also the first time the school has fielded a junior varsity baseball squad and Bonilla brought on a former player of his, Miles, to be their coach. When Miles graduated in 2009, there were only 12 players on his varsity team. The current Eagles varsity squad boasts 18 players with another 11 being groomed at the junior varsity level.
Bonilla was a very proactive player and translated that to his coaching style. He jumps in the batting cages to instruct, takes grounders with the infielders and even hits the weight room with the team on occasion.
Bonilla, who stands 5-foot-9, loves a challenge. He admits he was not born with the incredible physical abilities of some, but he worked hard to hone what advantages he had. He developed a keen batting eye and led Division 1 baseball in walks in 2001 and boasted a lifetime .383 on-base percentage as a pro.
The Eagles have stormed their way to an 8-0 San Joaquin League record this season, which Bonilla is proud of. He’s also proud of their 7-7 non-league record against opponents like San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Santa Margarita out of the Trinity League.
Players like seniors Daniel French (.295 batting average, three home runs) and Jacob Upton (.333) have helped lead the team in 2013 and have seen the program grow since their freshman year.
“Each year we’ve been progressively getting better, we’re attracting a lot more players,” French said. “A lot more people are getting to know about the school … It’s been really cool.”