All-Bee Teams

All-Bee baseball: Bullard's Niko Pacheco is Player of the Year

Niko Pacheco was in control as a quarterback while leading Bullard High to the Central Section Division I championship game last December.

But in baseball, until about five months ago, he wasn't. And that was discomforting: "I hadn't found a spot for my skill set. I was never a good fielder, but I always had a strong arm."

What followed was a bold, improbable and successful transition that, simply, resulted in Bullard's first section baseball title in 13 years.

Pacheco, as a junior strapped on the gear, dropped into a squat and played catcher for the first time in high school; virtually, for the first time in his life.

And guess what?

He caught every inning -- all 230 of them -- for a 26-7 team that finished ranked No. 11 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and with a staff earned-run average of 2.50.

"Without Niko, we don't have the year we have -- not even close," Knights coach Chad Thornhill says of The Bee's baseball Player of the Year. "We shoved him in there and he took to it. Turned out to be a natural position."

Pacheco's impact, in terms of leadership, catching and hitting skills, parallels that of catcher Jeff Brown, The Bee's Player of the Year in 2011 after providing the foundation in a 30-2 Buchanan championship season and final No. 1 national ranking by ESPN RISE.

Late last February, in a season opener in the Coca Cola Classic at Clovis, Pacheco doubled in his first at-bat off Buchanan's 2011 unbeaten Bee All-Star Dominic Topoozian and caught Blake Quinn's one-hitter in a 3-1 Bullard victory that would have a three-month carryover of confidence and momentum for the team.

Pacheco led Bullard in hitting (.364), and there wasn't a teammate near him in RBIs (37), doubles (16), total bases (58) and slugging percentage (.542).

He delivered:

* The team's hit of the year in a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Liberty-Bakersfield in the section quarterfinals -- a game-tying double in sixth inning.

* The team's defensive play of the year in an eight-inning 4-3 victory over Buchanan in the semis -- catching a Quinn fastball that bounced short of the plate in the seventh inning and tagging out a runner who represented the go-ahead run on a botched squeeze play.

* And two doubles and a single in a 6-2 championship conquest of Clovis.

Lifetime athletic high?

"Nothing to compare with this," he says. "It was absolutely amazing. There's nothing better than winning the Valley championship, knowing you and your teammates worked so hard to achieve that one goal. And actually doing it is really something."

On a team deep in pitching and position experience -- sans catcher -- Pacheco was the one player the Knights could least afford to lose.

What he did, considering his limited catching experience, was remarkable.

"I remember catching one inning of a Little League game when I was 4 or 5 years old," he says. "And then, last summer I caught about 10 to 15 innings for the Cal Blaze (travel team)."

That's it.

Pacheco then points to his family tree, and there's something relevant to be found there: his father, Chris, was a catcher, as was older sister Jocilyn, who was a two-year starting catcher for Bullard.

"It kind of came naturally because it was in the family and their catching experience helped a lot with the mental side and techniques."

Thornhill also points to the daily mentoring of Pacheco by assistant Brian Wong, a former Bullard and Fresno State catcher: "Brian did an amazing job with him, and Niko was a sponge for it.

"We needed a catcher, and somebody with leadership skills. So we shoved Niko in there. It made sense. And it was just an easy transition."

Niko Pacheco, Bullard

Grade: Junior

He's qualified because: Most valuable contributor for a 26-7 and Central Section Division I championship team that finished 11th-ranked in the state by Cal-Hi Sports. Catching for the first time in high school, he caught all of the Knights' 230 innings for a staff with an ERA of 2.50. He hit .364 with 37 RBIs -- 15 more than his nearest teammate -- while closing the season with a 3-for-3, two-double, one-RBI performance in a 6-2 victory against Clovis for the school's first D-I title in 13 years.

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