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Ceres High's Robert Cope and Central Valley's Martin Gomez welcome the challenge.

The two juniors will play pivotal roles this spring on their school's baseball teams.

Cope is the reigning Valley Oak League Offensive Player of the Year.

As a sophomore at the varsity level, Robert ranked first in the Valley Oak League in batting average (.559), home runs (3), slugging percentage (1.000) and on-base percentage (.659), second in RBIs (18) and triples (3), third in runs (17) and fifth in doubles (2).

"I surprised myself," he said.

Cope will play catcher and fill the No. 3 slot in the Bulldogs' lineup. The 5-foot-9, 220-pounder wants to bat .650, hit six homers and lead the Stanislaus District in doubles this year.

"I like the pressure," said Robert, who's added 20 pounds to his frame since last year. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing."

Cope worked on his game four hours a day at the CenCal Baseball/Softball Indoor Training Center at 510 Gregor Road in Oakdale during the offseason. Approximately 10 instructors provide lessons at the facility, including former Bulldog coach Mike McNeil.

"I enjoy it," Robert said.

Gomez had a productive sophomore campaign during the Hawks' inaugural varsity season in 2007.

"It's nice to have a guy you can trust," Hawks coach Central Valley coach Greg Magni said. "But he knows he still has work to do to become a complete player."

Martin's dominant pitching performance helped propel the Hawks to a 3-2 upset victory over third-place and crosstown-rival Ceres High. Gomez struck out nine and allowed just four hits as last-place Central Valley eliminated the heavily-favored Bulldogs from playoff contention on the final day of the Valley Oak League season.

"We were devastated," Cope said. "We couldn't believe it happened."

Gomez will play shortstop when he's not pitching this year.

"I'm going to be a leader on the team again," he said. "There's no pressure. I just go out there, play my game and not try to do too much."

"He does a lot of things well," Magni said.

Martin shed 15 pounds during the offseason.

His schoolmates noticed the transformation.

"They ask me if I stopped eating," said Gomez, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 160 pounds. "I just worked out and ran every day. I wanted to come into this year in better shape. I'm stronger and quicker."

The Valley Oak League will send three of its eight teams tothe playoffs.

Defending section and conference champion Oakdale has the talent in place to repeat.

The race for the final two postseason berths will be wide open. Central Valley, Ceres High, Sonora, Sierra, East Union, Manteca and Weston Ranch round out the VOL.

"The league is very even from top to bottom," Magni said. "You need to split every series or you won't have a chance."

"I think we have a playoff-caliber team," Gomez said. "We have good hitting, pitching and defense."

"I think we're going to come in third," Cope said.

Central Valley and Ceres High will play each other twice in 2008.

"This year should be interesting," Gomez said. "I'm not going to make any predictions. Both games should be competitive."

"A lot of us are looking forward to those games," Cope said. "We came in way overconfident last year. It will be different this year. They're a lot more talented."