Robbie Katzaroff is the appropriate hero to represent Los Alamitos High School’s baseball team.
Until this year, his only varsity experience was brief and gloomy.
It ground to a premature end last spring when the sophomore tore the cartilage in his knee while wrestling at home with his brother. So he missed the end of last season in favor of a date with a surgeon.
Los Alamitos’ fortunes in the sport of baseball have been similarly rocky in recent years. Last season, the team limped to a seventh-place finish in the eight-team Empire League.
This season’s prospects appeared bleak, as usual. In a sport where pitching is next to everything, the hapless Griffins were one of the few area teams without a pitcher with varsity experience.
Also, the team had a new coach and just two returning starters for the 1985 season.
Even under the best of circumstances, Los Alamitos still had tradition to contend with: The school hadn’t sent a baseball team to the playoffs since 1979.
“I was looking at 1986 to be our year,” said Mike Gibson, the Griffins’ new coach. “I was just hoping to be competitive this year. I was hoping we’d be .500.
Today, those crazy Griffins are preparing for their first playoff game in six years, and the unlikely catalyst, Katzaroff, finished the regular season with a 26-game hitting streak and a .516 batting average, one of the best averages in Orange County.
And the knee? It has carried the junior outfielder far enough and fast enough to steal 23 bases and score 32 runs. He also broke the school record with a county-leading 49 hits.
“This has been beyond my wildest dreams,” Gibson said, contemplating the team’s 18-8 record and third-place finish.
Katzaroff, an outstanding receiver on the football team and an all-league soccer forward, has already asked Gibson if he can pitch next year. The coach says there is no chance of it: “He could run the ball home faster than he can throw it.”
Not to imply that the Griffins can afford to be choosy about pitching. They have a staff that Gibson euphemistically describes as “action pitchers” because the ball gets a lot of action in the field when they pitch, although they have improved under the supervision of assistant coach Kevin Loftus.
David Van Winkle, alias Bull Winkle, owns the best earned-run average (3.18) and win-loss record (4-0) on the team, and he also leads the Griffins with seven saves. He throws an incredibly hard fastball that has been known to find any available target but the strike zone.
When the Griffins played Kennedy at Blair Field, Van Winkle hit a batter, the catcher and an umpire. When Gibson finally went to replace him, Van Winkle protested. So Gibson told him it was at the request of the ump.
This was the type of team whose raw elements required a bit of polish, maybe a gallon or so. Gibson, who had guided the Griffin junior varsity to league titles in three of the past four seasons, was apparently just the person to do it. He had the advantage of former coach Al Gragnano’s advice and support.
Gibson reminds people of his own baseball credentials: He was an all-Catalina Island high school player--when the island had a graduating class of 15.
The first thing Gibson did for the Los Alamitos varsity was to help raise $7,000 from the community to finance a batting cage, pitching machine, improved center-field fence, new uniforms and higher salaries for the assistant coaches.
Then he improved dugout aesthetics and morale by drafting the Winter Formal Queen, the Homecoming Queen and the Basketball Queen to help as statisticians. “Even if we lose, we’ll have the most interesting dugout in the league,” he said.
The team already had a certain glamour, as well as talent, in the form of the sons of two well-known professional athletes.
Outfielder J.T. Snow, a junior who plays three sports, is the son of former Los Angeles Rams All-Pro Jack Snow. J.T. hit .429 with 21 RBIs. First baseman Ricky Nen, one of the two returning starters, is the son of former Dodger infielder Dick Nen. Ricky hit .414 with 26 RBIs.
“Ricky Nen just looks good in a baseball uniform,” Gibson said. “If I looked as good as he did, I wouldn’t wear shorts to the games. But I look more like Tommy Lasorda in a uniform.”
Any team would love to claim the Griffins’ other returning player, all-CIF selection Travis Tarchione. When Tarchione takes batting practice, Gibson has to send somebody out to fish for balls in a drainage ditch 400 feet down the left-field line.
Teammate Gary Renko has gotten in the habit of grimly introducing Tarchione’s turn at bat with, “Get out the scuba masks.”
Renko was the season’s surprising ringer. He had never played any high school baseball, competing in motocross racing instead. He joined the team as a senior and is hitting .444 with eight doubles.
Gibson shook up the program by subscribing to a youth movement in most cases, however. He dropped six seniors and allowed eight underclassmen to play in hopes of upgrading the team for the supposed 1986 playoff campaign.
He strengthened the infield by moving last year’s part-time catcher, Mike Wilkins, to shortstop and bringing up junior Mark Wolfe to play catcher.
“He was thrust into a starting role and he turned into one of the better defensive catchers in the league,” Gibson said. “He’s thrown out some of the fastest kids in the league.”
He entrusted second base to a sophomore, Ron Scanlon, and switched the formidable Tarchione from the outfield to third base.
Tarchione, who Gibson calls “the silent leader,” hit .429 last season and .388 this season with 26 RBIs.
“Many people are going to look at him and think he didn’t have a good year,” Gibson said. “But he was a marked man with the pitchers, and they pitched around him a lot.”
Although the Griffins will have three pitchers, a catcher and four other experienced players coming back next season, they may not have their coach.
Gibson, who has coached various Los Alamitos sports for 16 years, said he may choose to spend more time with his family, including daughter Kelly, who enters high school in the fall, and son Jeff, a junior baseball player at Mater Dei.
“I gave myself two or three years to do this, and right now, I feel as if we were able to accomplish about all my goals in one year,” Gibson said. “We’ve accomplished it a lot quicker than I expected.”
Former Sunny Hills High School basketball coach and athletic director Russ Hawk has been inducted into the Southern Section’s Hall of Fame for his 34 years of dedication and contributions to education and athletics. Hawk posted a record of 246-150 as the Lancers’ basketball coach, and his 1969 team reached the championship game of the 4-A division playoffs. He also served as the school’s athletic director for nine years. . . . Foothill quarterback Jud Dutrisac and tight end Dave Gazzaniga have been accepted at Dartmouth College and plan to continue their football careers at the Ivy League school. . . . Foothill center fielder Stacy Parker, like Dutrisac, a three-sport athlete, has signed a letter of intent to play baseball at UC Irvine. . . . Former Laguna Hills High pitcher Lee Plemel, a freshman at Stanford, is 4-0 with a 3.46 ERA as the No. 1 long-relief man for the second-ranked Cardinal. Plemel helped Laguna Hills to the Southern Section 2-A baseball title in 1984. . . . Tustin Coach Dan Sheehy believes the Tillers have the best manager around, and probably the only manager with an RBI and a run scored to his credit. Brian Milligan, a senior at Tustin, actually holds the type of job Pete Rose thrives on--that of manager/player. Milligan’s unique role in the Tiller baseball program evolved after he made the final roster cut, only to be displaced by a returning player who came out for the team late. Sheehy offered Milligan the dual deal, and has used him as a substitute in two games. In his one at-bat, Milligan drew a walk with the bases loaded to push home a run against Serra. He later came around to score. . . . The CIF Southern Section Executive Council voted Thursday to lift the year’s probation from high school soccer. The council reported that the number of major incidents that disrupted games--including ejections, fights, misconduct penalties and player suspensions--had been reduced from 107 during the 1983-84 season to 31 this season. The council also noted that the frequency of unsportsmanlike incidents went down in every sport except baseball this year. . . . Santa Ana’s John Schilling (8-1), who pitched the Saints to the Century league baseball championship this season, has signed a letter of intent to play at Fresno State.