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Plays for 4-A Title Tonight : Kennedy Not Defensive About Defense Anymore

Kennedy High baseball Coach Dick Whitney goes after his first City 4-A championship tonight at 7 against Banning.

But he has some lighthearted reservations about playing the game at Dodger Stadium.

“Some of the guys are a little in awe of playing at Dodger Stadium,” Whitney said. “I just tell them that it’s a nice place to play but not to pattern their play after the Dodgers, who have had some problems catching and throwing this season.”

Kennedy (18-5) has already experienced its share of defensive problems.

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After opening the season with seven straight victories, including three Mid-Valley League games, the Cougars slumped. They lost five of their next six, committing 28 errors in the span.

The slump forced the Cougars to revise their goals. Gone were the league-title aspirations spawned by the fast start. Survival was all that mattered.

“We weren’t even thinking of making it this far,” left fielder Joe Yurosek said. “We just wanted to be close enough for fourth place to make the playoffs.”

Instead, Kennedy fought almost all the way back, finishing second to league champion Granada Hills by a game.

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Tonight, after outscoring three playoff opponents, 19-5, the Cougars bring a nine-game winning streak to Chavez Ravine. Banning (16-10), in a rematch of the 1981 City title game won by Kennedy, is all that stands in the way of a full-scale Cougar turnaround.

And no one is taking the assignment lightly.

“We know we have to play tough,” Yurosek said. “It’s happened before that we’ve fallen apart. But if we play good defense, it will be a good game.”

The analysis is shared by Whitney, who has no simple answer for his team’s mid-season slump or the about-face.

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“Maybe the early success went to our heads,” said Whitney, who is in his first year at Kennedy. “Maybe we didn’t prepare enough on the little things. But we just weren’t catching and throwing the ball. Some of the little things you take for granted were letting us down.”

The defense left Kennedy down, but not out. And with its timely return, the Cougars are in position to claim their second City baseball title in five years.

A Kennedy win would make it 13 consecutive years that a Valley entry has won the City championship.

Whitney isn’t looking that far ahead. His scouting efforts have left him with considerable respect for Banning.

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“The more I hear about them, the better they sound,” Whitney said. “They’re scrappy, and their play in the playoffs indicates that they take advantage of other team’s mistakes.”

The Pilots did just that in beating Granada Hills, 12-11, in the semifinals. Banning took advantage of seven Highlander errors, including an errant pickoff throw in the bottom of the seventh that scored the winning run.

Kennedy’s path to the final began with a 12-1 victory over Reseda and continued with victories over a pair of league champions.

In a 3-2 victory over Marine League champion San Pedro, Yurosek signaled the return of the Cougar defense with an outstanding catch at the left-field wall to preserve the victory.

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And in the semifinals, Kennedy eliminated top-seeded Chatsworth, champion of the West Valley League, 4-2, on a combined four-hitter by Eric Evans and Sandy Sreden.

Bring on Banning.

“Banning has a tremendous sports tradition,” Whitney said. “It’s ironic that we should be playing them because we’re a second-place team and they finished in third place.

“But I think we’re as good as any first-place team around.”

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Especially since there are none around at this point. And Kennedy, which has just two returning starters back from last season, is just one win away from making regular-season finishes meaningless.

The Cougars will start right-hander Eric Evans (11-2), who has six wins in Kennedy’s streak. Evans throws a variety of pitches, but his curve ball has been the weapon that has carried the team this far.

“The curve is his out pitch,” Whitney said. “It’s a real value as far as the defense is concerned, because it breaks so low and produces a lot of double plays.”

Banning will not start its top pitcher this season, left-hander Joe Pardo, because he has a sore arm. Michael Ortiz, who is 2-0 in the playoffs, is expected to start for the Pilots.

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Offensively, Yurosek is Kennedy’s top hitter in the playoffs, with a .500 average. Sophomore third baseman Kevin Farlow has five hits, and shortstop Greg Synnott led Kennedy batting during the regular season with a .490 average.

With bat in hand and Evans on the mound, the Cougars are seldom a concern for Whitney. “Even when we were making the errors, the hitting and pitching were there,” he said.

And lately, even the defense has come around. The image of Yurosek grabbing a potential game-tying double at the fence at San Pedro has stayed with the Cougars.

“Like everything else, baseball is a matter of confidence,” Whitney said. “I don’t know how people rated this team at the beginning, but we knew we were inexperienced. We didn’t expect to be in the position we’re in.”

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But it’s true--Kennedy is in the City final. And the reason is obvious.

The Cougars got defensive.


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