Students walking the hallways at Westland Hialeah these days often look forward to that next announcement about the school’s baseball team.
For the first time, the words “state tournament” and Westland Hialeah are being used together.
The Wildcats’ baseball team will do something no other sport has done in the school’s eight-year history when they take on Tampa’s George Steinbrenner High at 7 p.m. Friday in a Class 8A state semifinal at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
“Most of the kids come up and still ask about the playoffs and how it works and how many rounds there are,” coach Jose Alvarez said. “It’s all new for our school.”
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Alvarez, a graduate of Miami Springs, is the only varsity coach in the program’s history after being hired in 2009 following a one-year stint at his alma mater.
Alvarez had previously coached as an assistant at Coral Park under then-coach Jose Novas, and along with that school’s current coach Juan “Butch” Carnicero, who just guided the Rams to their best season in nearly two decades.
Although Alvarez’s teams over the past seven seasons had often been competitive, none had advanced beyond the district round of the playoffs.
A year after it made its first regional playoff appearance as a district runnerup and lost 10-0 to St. Thomas Aquinas, Westland Hialeah (21-9) won its first district and regional championships, and is now two victories away from a first-ever state championship.
“We were always competitive and had talented kids, but this is the first year where we didn’t have kids leave to other schools,” Alvarez said.
Right-handed pitcher Gio Arriera, one of seven seniors on the roster, is at the heart of Westland’s breakthrough season.
Arriera — who along with senior second baseman Bryan Lavastida and junior shortstop David Vazquez are all being recruited by FIU, USF and Barry — has posted 109 strikeouts, a 1.02 ERA and a 7-3 record entering the state tournament. He also hit .320.
Arriera was instrumental in Westland overcoming district foe and 2015 state semifinalist Mater Academy, a team the Wildcats beat four times this season. Arriera gave up only three runs in 20 2/3 innings he pitched in those games.
During the regional playoffs, Arriera has only allowed two runs in 18 innings.
“Gio is a kid that comes after hitters with a two-seam fastball and can mix in a good curveball as well,” Alvarez said. “He’s been solid since his freshman season, but last year you could already see how special he could become.”
Vazquez is hitting .448 with 15 doubles, 17 RBI and has scored 26 runs, and Lavastida is hitting .455, with four triples, three doubles, a home run, 16 RBI and 29 runs scored.
In last week’s regional final victory against Delray Beach Atlantic, Lavastida pitched three scoreless innings in relief until Westland secured a 3-0 win in nine innings.
Junior catcher Jorge Diaz and sophomore third baseman Evander Hernandez have also been huge contributors, according to Alvarez, who said the Wildcats’ confidence in close games soared after spring break.
Westland proceeded to beat then-nationally ranked South Dade and Southwest, the eventual District 15-9A champions, at the GMAC tournament before losing again to Goleman in the final.
Steinbrenner boasts a couple of talented juniors in pitcher C.J. VanEyk, a Florida State University commit, and outfielder Cam Coakley, a Stetson commit, as well as senior outfielder Drew Burkhart, a University of Tampa signee.