Panthers feast at the plate

Max Banning
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Pinewood School’s Max Banning makes contact in last week’s game against Downtown College Prep. The Panthers prevailed 35-0 at Purissima Park in Los Altos Hills.

The Pinewood School baseball team isn’t just beating league opponents – the Panthers are pulverizing them. Their eight-game winning streak is filled with scores that are not only lopsided, but also atypical for the sport, such as 20-0, 32-1 and 35-0.

After opening the season with a 7-5 non-league loss to Harker, Pinewood has outscored its eight Private School Athletic League South Division foes by a whopping 153-7. The club averages nearly 18 runs per game this year.

Last week’s 35-0 rout of Downtown College Prep-Alum Rock goes down as the Panthers’ most decisive victory in at least 15 years – and that April 16 home game ended after the top of the fourth inning on the mercy rule.

“It was a little much,” said shortstop/pitcher Eric Burton, who had three of Pinewood’s 18 hits, recorded five RBIs and scored five runs. “There are a lot of developing teams in our league.”

Thomas More High is the only team expected to challenge the Panthers for the PSAL South Division title; the Knights are also 7-0 in league. The teams shared the crown last year and next week play a two-game series that will likely determine this year’s champion.

“The top team in the league is Thomas More,” said David Kawamoto, Pinewood’s new head coach. “We are a little below them – they are more experienced than us.”

Pinewood lost nine members of last year’s Central Coast Section Division III playoff team to graduation, including top players Jackson Haun and Bo Fick. Kolton Budge and Max Banning are the only seniors on a 12-man squad that features six freshmen.

“The program is very young,” Kawamoto said. “But we’re not rebuilding – we’re in the developmental stage. It’s been fun; I really enjoy working on the details and developing kids.”

Kawamoto’s vast baseball experience includes 14 years at Cupertino High, where he served as an assistant and head coach, and two years as director of baseball operations at San Jose State. The longtime Cupertino resident also works with Los Altos & Los Altos Hills Little League and the NorCal Baseball Club.

“He’s great,” Burton said of his coach. “He’s one of the originals – he teaches the game how it’s supposed to be played.”

The sophomore added that’s he’s benefited from Kawamoto’s tutelage – particularly at the plate.

“He’s worked a lot with me on my swing,” said Burton, who bats second in the order. “I used to go up there and try not to get an out, and now I’m looking for a double every time.”

Eight games into the season, Burton had a team-high nine doubles. He was also leading the Panthers in batting average (.724), on-base percentage (.778), hits (21), RBIs (19) and triples (two).

“He’s our best hitter,” Kawamoto said of Burton, who batted .452 a year ago. “He has an opportunity to pursue (baseball) at the next level.”

Burton is also Pinewood’s No. 2 pitcher behind Budge, whose 28 strikeouts tops the team. Both players have ERAs under 1.00.

“Kolton is one of our better players,” Kawamoto said. “He pitches, plays shortstop and hits in the middle of the lineup.”

Budge and right fielder Banning provide leadership – “They keep everyone in check,” Burton said – along with junior center fielder Liam Smith.

“Liam’s our leadoff hitter, and he’s a very good leader,” Kawamoto said.

Eight games in, Smith scored a team-best 20 runs, and his .577 batting average ranked second on the squad.

The coach also praised junior catcher Quinn Bates and freshmen starters Terry Owen (first base), Jacob Esposito (third base), Will McDowell (second base) and Roman Vasishta (left field). Owen also pitches, often in the role of closer.

“We have some freshmen who haven’t played since they were 12, and (Kawamoto) gave things to work on and they’ve improved,” Burton said. “It’s fun to see the young guys grow.”

Although the team is young, Burton is optimistic about the Panthers’ chances of making the playoffs for the third year in a row.

“Hopefully we can win the league and get back to CCS, but if we don’t (place first), we could still make it – they might take two teams,” he said. “We’d really like to get back there and get some redemption after losing in the first round last year.”

The playoffs are slated to start May 18. Pinewood has six games scheduled before then, starting 4 p.m. today against visiting Design Tech at Purissima Park.

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