All Uphill at First : Parental Guidance Gave St. John Bosco's Lemmers a Boost

Times Staff Writer

According to the experts, marriages thrive when the work load is shared.

John and Paula Lemmers, a Long Beach couple, put the theory to its ultimate test, dividing the duties in the athletic education of their son, Gene.

John was strictly a leg man.

"My dad is really a soccer buff, and he started me in soccer when I was about 5 years old," said Lemmers, who is now 17 and a senior at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower.

"We'd go to this park every day and there was this big hill and he'd have me kick up that hill every day to build up leg strength. I even got a bigger ball for my age group. I'd get the biggest ball I could find and just kick it up that hill."

Gene continued to get in his kicks for about five years, giving John a leg up, but then Paula got into the game, making it an arms race.

"I started pitching when I was about 10," Lemmers said. "My mom got me into that. At first, I only wanted to play soccer, but she backed me up with my dad and made me play other things. She really got me started in baseball. That's when I realized I really liked baseball and football."

That kind of double-teaming has paid handsome dividends for Gene.

He played soccer for two seasons at St. John Bosco, helping the Braves gain the playoffs each year, then decided to confine his kicking to football.

That seems to have been a solid decision. Last season, he was the best punter-placekicker in the Southern Section, averaging nearly 42 yards a punt. He is also an outstanding linebacker who is heading to Cal State Long Beach on a football scholarship.

Lemmers, who made 11 of 17 field-goal attempts, kicked an astonishing 48-yarder in a 36-35 loss to Long Beach Poly in the quarterfinals of the Big Five playoffs. Jim Barnett, Poly's coach at the time, was dumbfounded.

"Are you kidding me," Barnett said as the kick cleared the uprights with 10 yards to spare. "I started to laugh when he teed it up. Now it looks like he could kick it from his own end zone."

With a five-year handicap, it's not surprising that it took Lemmers' right arm a little while to catch up.

As a junior, Lemmers was a seldom-used pitcher, compiling a 2-1 record. The scouting report indicated that he had great speed--one gun clocked his fastball at 89 m.p.h.--but was wild. St. John's baseball Coach Ed Riley joked, in fact, that Lemmers had thrown one pitch over the screen and onto the school roof.

"I never threw one on the roof," Lemmers said, laughing. "But it was pretty hectic last season.

"Last year, I was more of a thrower. I couldn't hit spots. I threw it in the dirt a lot, or I overthrew. But over the summer I worked real hard on hitting the spots. And it's really helped me because now I can put the ball where I want it."

Last Tuesday, in the second round of the Southern Section 4-A playoffs, Lemmers got speed and control together, pitching a four-hit shutout against heavily favored Millikan. The 9-0 victory moved St. John (19-4) into this afternoon's quarterfinals against No. 2-seeded Riverside Poly (24-2).

"I admit I'm as inconsistent as heck," said Lemmers, whose 9-1 record and 1.22 earned-run average indicate otherwise.

"I mean, I've been lucky because my fastball has carried me through some tough situations. But there are days when you don't feel comfortable in your motion and if you don't feel fluid, there's no way you can throw strikes.

"But Tuesday, I got seven strikeouts against Millikan. That was great because everyone said they were a great hitting team. After the first two innings, I just got into this groove and I knew I wasn't going to lose, especially the way the team was hitting and backing me up."

Last Friday, things didn't go as smoothly.

"He still can look like a million bucks one minute and then be terrible in the next," said assistant coach Tim Ellis. "In one of the last league games, a kid from Crespi hit one that's still in orbit. Then last week, he came in in the sixth when we're up 9-6 against Torrance and he gave up three runs."

Riley agreed, but added, "He was bad when he started, but in the 10th, after we scored the go-ahead run, he was brilliant. Shut them down.

"And Tuesday! Hey, you won't see a finer game. He's a competitor. When he gets older in this game, and depending on how the football goes, he'll get with a real pitching coach, someone who can get the legs more involved in his motion, and then I think you're going to see something. He can really throw.

"Look at Sandy Koufax. He was wild as heck, and then all of a sudden, boom. He's great."

There was no bolt of lighting or message from heaven that suddenly turned Lemmers from a wild thrower into a disciplined pitcher. Just hours of practice.

"I worked hard last summer," he said. "I threw a lot. But I think the big thing is confidence. I haven't changed anything mechanical, although I'm working hard on my curveball.

"This year, I basically just told myself I had a good fastball, now just put it in the strike zone. I guess if there was one game this year that made me believe in myself it was against El Segundo. We won, 3-0, and I pitched real well. I pitched a two-hitter and it was the best game I ever pitched in high school. And I thought, if I can do this well and throw with this velocity and keep it in the strike zone, things would work out."

Scouts from Kansas City, Houston, New York, Oakland, Cincinnati, the Dodgers and Angels have already come out to observe the change.

Today, however, another senior, Curt Stewart, is expected to draw the starting assignment. Lemmers may be used in relief, but his preferred schedule calls for a day off and then the starting assignment in Tuesday's semifinals.

The whole team has visions of winning the school's first Southern Section team title in any sport, and with a hot hitter, sophomore shortstop Carey Wines, who earlier this season established a Section record with four home runs in a game, the underdog Braves just may pull it off.

"I expect Curt to go all the way," Lemmers said. "Riverside Poly has been a good team all season. Just look at their record. But if Curt is throwing his good stuff and hitting the corners, we should be all right.

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