Esperanza High School entered the Southern Section 4-A playoffs with 20 victories and enough .400 hitters to fill more than half of a lineup card. Huntington Beach came into postseason play with a pitcher named Jeff Haack and a batting order that generally produced more outs than runs.
So why, Esperanza Coach Mike Curran wondered, were some coaches picking the Aztecs to lose when the teams met in Friday's first round, as one newspaper reported earlier this week?
After the Aztecs left their home field with a relatively easy 7-0 victory, Curran was still wondering.
"We're a team that has won 20 games--21 now--and everybody's saying we're going to get beat," Curran said. "(Haack's) a good pitcher, but we think we have a pretty good pitcher, too."
That pitcher is left-hander Steve Halweg, who allowed only two hits and struck out seven to record his 12th win, a single-season school record. Halweg (12-2) pitched five innings before being relieved by Tim MacNeil, who completed Esperanza's first shutout of the season.
And what of Haack, who accounted for 10 of Huntington Beach's 13 victories? He gave up eight hits and seven runs--four of them earned--and struck out only one in four innings. What was expected to be a pitcher's duel turned out to be no contest, and the transformation took all of one inning.
After Halweg retired the side in order in the top of the first, Esperanza rallied in the bottom of the inning to score four runs on three hits and a little help from the Huntington Beach fielders.
Kevin Clancy, returning to the lineup after missing the last game of the regular season with what has been re-diagnosed as a sprained ankle, led off by hitting a sinking line drive that got past a diving Brian McLeod in left field. The ball rolled toward the left-field fence and Clancy, showing no signs of a limp, didn't stop running until he reached third base.
Andy Escobar followed by hitting a pop fly that fell between three Oilers in short right field, enabling Clancy to score. Huntington Beach shortstop Jim Dedrick misplayed a ground ball to load the bases. Tom Redington scored to make it 2-0 when Dave Moralez grounded out. Larry Nix hit an 0-2 pitch from Haack into right field for a two-run single that made it 4-0.
"You can't give a team like Esperanza five or six outs an inning, and that's what we did in the first couple of innings," Huntington Beach Coach Mike Dodd said. "We've played good defense around Jeff Haack all year. We knew that's what we had to do today, but we just didn't do it."
Esperanza (21-3-1) added a run in the third on Moralez' RBI single through a drawn-in Oiler infield and two more in the fourth on a two-run homer by Redington, his eighth of the season. The Aztecs will meet San Gorgonio (18-5) in Tuesday's second round. The home team for that game will be determined by a coin flip.
Friday was prom night at Huntington Beach. Perhaps Dodd should make it a point to sit in on some meetings of the prom committee next year. For the past three seasons, prom night has coincided with the first round of the playoffs, and the Oilers have been eliminated each time.