SALINAS — It seemed only fitting that Luke Rossi and JoJo Cardinale would be chosen as team captains.
Scholarship bound in baseball, three-year starters for Palma — highly competitive.
Yet, those competitiveness juices the past two years may have gotten in the way of the ultimate team goal.
“There were times where we would compete within ourselves, and made it more about ourselves,” Rossi said. “What we had to do was get together and become better leaders for this team.”
Riding an eight-game winning streak into Friday’s meeting with Carmel, the Chieftains are clearly on the same page as a group.
“I give Luke a lot of credit for setting the bar,” Cardinale said. “We knew what we wanted to accomplish. It was how we were going to do it. We needed to become better role models for the kids on this team.”
The pair, who are good friends and combined for over 80% of the Chieftains’ offense on the football field in the fall, sat down and put a plan together.
“At the end of the day, we have the same goals,” said Rossi, who is headed to the University of San Francisco next year to play baseball. “We both wanted to be the alpha. Instead of butting heads, why can’t there be two alphas?”
The two captains have led by example this fall, with Cardinale hitting just under .500, ripping his first homer in Wednesday’s 12-2 win over Carmel.
“It does make a difference that Luke and I are on the same page, instead of going at it in practice,” said Cardinale, who signed with the University of Utah earlier this year. “Communication is critical.”
That reinforced attitude that the pair have offered up has become contagious. Since falling to Los Gatos in its opener, Palma has outscored opponents 70-20 during its eight-game winning streak.
The Chieftains have had a blistering start out the gates in the Gabilan Division, averaging just under 10 runs a game, with Rossi spraying the ball around the field in the No. 3 slot in the batting order.
“It’s not just Joe and I,” Rossi said. “It’s our entire senior leadership. The first six hitters in the lineup are seniors. Most of us have been together since our sophomore years. The chemistry is there.”
Rossi believes the cohesiveness began to jell last year during the Chieftains’ run to a spot in the Central Coast Section Division IV finals, when a handful of sophomores were called up.
“We pulled up a lot of sophomores out of necessity for the playoffs,” Rossi said. “These kids competed and contributed. I think it did set the tone for this season. It’s virtually the same group.”
Rossi, who accounted for 23 touchdowns in the fall as Palma’s quarterback, feels the addition of coach Sal Cardinale also provided an infusion of energy.
“He’s been a huge part of our success,” Rossi said. “He’s brought a lot of energy. You need to be positive through the tough times. He talks about being a closer on the field and finishing.”
While there have been challenges in Palma’s path, its average margin of victory during its eight-game winning streak has been 6.2 runs.
Five players have homered this year, including Rossi, Cade Wheeler, Ethan Chrisman and Joey Barros.
“This is who we are,” JoJo Cardinale said. “After football season, we bounced straight to baseball. With Luke and I (as) captains, we set the perfect tone. I expected this. I think we all did.”
For as potent as the Chieftains bats have been, the one concern that has been erased from Cardinale’s mind is the pitching — which has been consistent.
Juniors Quentin Williams and Blake Butler have taken turns taming opponents in starting roles, keeping opponents off-balance, while often pitching with leads.
The Chieftains pitching staff has held six opponents to two runs or fewer this season, relying on a defense anchored by Rossi at third and Cardinale at shortstop, solidifying the left side of the infield.
“This was an expectation,” Rossi said. “You could see the attitude on the first day of practice. We’ve competed from the start. We wanted to come out and set the tone.”
Even after falling to perennial playoff power Los Gatos, the mindset was the Chieftains could play with anyone.
“If anything it was a confidence boost,” Rossi said. “It wasn’t a bad loss. We competed, played hard. We talked after the game about taking care of the little things. The start has been amazing. But we can get a lot better.”
Seeing teammates laying it on the line and playing for each other is what Cardinale believes has taken Palma to another level on the field.
“Experience is big,” Cardinale said. “We have some nifty players that battle. This team is tight. We play for each other. There’s a lot of baseball left. But we’ve kind of figured things out.”