Preston Hartsell said he was a phone call away from going to JSerra. He said he was also close to going to Mater Dei.
Hartsell wasn’t even in high school, and he said coaches from the private schools began to send him gift baskets. He was that gifted as a baseball player.
Almost three years ago, as an incoming freshman, Hartsell could have gone the private school route. Instead, he decided to stay put and attend his neighborhood school, Corona del Mar.
Why did Hartsell pick a program that had missed the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs the previous two years? The best choices looked to be JSerra and Mater Dei. While CdM failed to make the playoffs, JSerra earned the top seed in Division 1 in 2014, and Mater Dei did the year before in the top division.
“That’s where my [mother] wanted me to go,” Hartsell said, referring to JSerra. “My dad was pretty much the biggest influence. He was a big athlete when he was younger, and he could’ve gone to a few big private schools like in the Washington, D.C. area, but he just told me how much he loved his hometown school, like his hometown crowd, and I thought, ‘I want to do the same.’”
Hartsell is in his junior year at CdM, and he said he has no regrets. He thanks his dad, Mark, for steering him in the right direction.
Since Hartsell arrived at CdM, he has led the Sea Kings to the playoffs every year. He started right away for the Sea Kings, and he probably would not have contributed as much at a private school as a freshman.
But the reason why Hartsell said he chose CdM was because he wanted to go to school and play with the kids he grew up with in town.
Playing at a public school wasn’t going to hurt him when it came to his future on the next level. A month before the left-handed hitter swung the bat for CdM for the first time in a regular-season game as a freshman, Hartsell committed to USC.
He was 15 years old. Colleges began to notice Hartsell before he came to CdM. He stood out at national tournaments with his then-Phenom club team from Moreno Valley.
Even when Hartsell got an offer from USC, he went against the alma mater of his mom, Theresa.
“I actually grew up as a UCLA fan,” Hartsell said. “My mom went there, so it was a little bit of a change when I [committed] to USC.
“I really wanted to stay in the Los Angeles area, so it was really only between USC and UCLA. I really liked how [USC’s Dedeaux Field] was on campus.”
Hartsell, a center fielder, is one of three talented juniors at CdM who have committed to colleges. The other two are shortstop JT Schwartz (UCLA) and pitcher Chazz Martinez (UC Santa Barbara).
The three came in together as freshmen, starting right away for CdM coach John Emme. Starting a freshman trio two years ago was a first for Emme.
Now, Hartsell, Schwartz and Martinez are the team’s nucleus. They’re the first three batters a pitcher faces. Hartsell leads off, followed by Schwartz, then Martinez. Three straight left-handed bats.
“Our top three guys have been phenomenal all year,” Emme said. “Preston hitting leadoff and he has done a really, really good job. He’s [hitting .412] on the year with five home runs, [three] triples [and five doubles]. When he gets on base, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to score [with Schwartz and Martinez hitting behind him].
“It’s kind of reminiscent of 1999, and even in 2004, when we just moved our best three [hitters] up to the top [to] get them as many at-bats, and it’s worked out well for us.”
Those two years Emme mentioned are also the two times he has led CdM to a section title. One year Hartsell has heard Emme bring up is 2004, when the Sea Kings beat Tesoro 3-1 in the Division IV final at Dodger Stadium.
“He just always talks about it and how much he’d like to get back there,” said Hartsell, knowing that this year’s Division 2 championship game is at Dodger Stadium on June 2.
One thing this current team and the 2004 team have in common is that they both won an outright Pacific Coast League crown.
Last week, Hartsell helped the Sea Kings (20-6, 12-3 in league) finish alone in first for the first time in 13 years. He led off the first and sixth innings with home runs, wasting little time to give CdM the lead both times at Northwood.
Hartsell crushed the first offering from Kevin Yonamine each time over the fence. The second homer broke a 5-5 tie, and CdM went on to win 7-5, closing out league play a game ahead of second-place Woodbridge.
The first-place finish marked CdM’s first since 2006, when it shared the championship with Northwood and Calvary Chapel. That year, the Sea Kings went into the postseason as the league’s No. 3 entry, having to play on the road in the first round and they lost.
Hartsell and the Sea Kings have been in that situation before. Last year, despite splitting second with Beckman in league, they entered the playoffs as the league’s No. 3 representative, and the Sea Kings lost in the first round at Lake Elsinore Temescal Canyon 7-3.
The first-round exit was the second in as many years for CdM. The last time the Sea Kings got past the first round was eight years ago.
Hartsell hopes CdM can end its drought in the first round on Friday. The Sea Kings, ranked No. 6 in the Division 2 poll, will play host to Chino Hills Ayala (21-10) at 3:15 p.m.
The two teams met a year ago during the Newport Elks Tournament at CdM, a game Hartsell hasn’t forgotten how it ended.
“We beat [the Bulldogs] on a walk-off,” Hartsell said of the 5-4 win, “but they were pretty good, though.”
Emme said Ayala, the third-place team from the Palomares League, home to West Covina South Hills, the No. 4 seed in Division 1, is still very talented. He went to scout Ayala’s 1-0 win at Villa Park in the wild-card round on Wednesday.
Emme plans to start Martinez (6-4, 1.83 ERA), and he expects Adam Seminaris (6-2, 1.58 ERA) to throw for Ayala. The first round could feature two left-handers.
“We’re ready to play,” said Emme, whose team will have had seven days off in between games. “You finish up [the regular season on May 11] and you don’t play again until Friday, but it certainly beats out having to play a [wild-card] game [on Wednesday].”
Before Emme traveled to watch Ayala on Wednesday, he marveled at Hartsell. It was because of what Hartsell wasn’t putting into his body.
“While all the kids are eating hot dogs, he’s like, ‘I don’t eat those.’ He’s got a very strict diet that he maintains,” Emme said of Hartsell, who only has one cheat meal a week, usually a cheeseburger or fried chicken, with some sort of cheesecake as dessert. “He’s one of the most committed, dedicated, hardest-working kids that I’ve ever had [during my 20 years as coach at CdM]. He doesn’t get caught up in the fast food-world that most high school kids live in.”
Another thing Hartsell wasn’t sold on was playing baseball at a private high school.
Born: July 25, 1999
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 5 feet 11
Weight: 195 pounds
Coach: John Emme
Favorite food: Rice
Favorite movie: “Coach Carter”
Favorite athletic moment: “When I was 14, hitting a walk-off [for my Moreno Valley-based Phenom club team] against [California Baseball Academy at Azusa Pacific University].”
Week in review: Hartsell went three for three with two solo home runs, as the Sea Kings won at Northwood 7-5, clinching the outright Pacific Coast League title in the regular-season finale last week.