CCAA Race Shapes Up as a Five-School Affair

Times Staff Writer

The subject was college baseball. Fill in the blank.

“The (blank) is as good as any conference in the country, Division I or whatever. There isn’t that one dominant team, but for overall strength top to bottom, it can’t be beat.”

The man who said it, Jack Smitheran, is a veteran coach of 21 college baseball seasons.

So what conference was he talking about? The Pac-10 with Stanford, USC, UCLA and defending national champion Arizona? The Southwest Conference with perennial power Texas? How about the Big Eight with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma?


Nope. He was referring to the seven-team California Collegiate Athletic Assn., a Division II conference that begins play this week.

Smitheran might be biased because he is the coach of CCAA member UC Riverside, but statistics indicate the conference would at least be competitive.

CCAA teams have a respectable .470 winning percentage against Division I opposition this season. Several of the victories have come against teams like USC, Pepperdine, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton, Loyola Marymount and Arizona State, all of which are nationally ranked.

“Every team in this conference is dangerous,” said Andy Lopez, coach of Cal State Dominguez Hills. “There are four or five teams that could win it. It’s a typical CCAA year.”

Dominguez, ranked sixth in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll, is the early favorite. But the Toros could be in a season-long battle with Cal State Northridge, UC Riverside, Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Los Angeles.

Dominguez (11-7) has 12 players back from ateam that went 19-11 (32-22 overall) and won its first conference baseball title. Among them is Fred Hanker, a senior outfielder who drove in a school-record 56 runs.

Outfielder Jon Beuder, who had 50 RBIs and led the Toros with a .338 batting average, is also back. Dominguez will be showing a new look in its middle infield, however, following the loss of shortstop Greg Grebeck and second baseman Mike Brocki, both All-Americans.

“You can’t replace two guys like that,” Lopez said. Mike Perryman, who is hitting .422, has done a fairly good imitation of Grebeck. Lazaro Iguanzo, a transfer from Long Beach City College, is the new second baseman.

But the key to repeating as champion is probably not strength up the middle as much as it is depth on the mound. Of the conference’s top five teams, each has two strong pitchers:

Dominguez--Mike Aspray (5-2 last season, 2.67 earned run average) and Brian Ayers (8-6, 4.28 ERA).

Northridge--Dan Penner (4-2, 6.58) and Jeremy Hernandez (3-2, 6.58). Riverside-- Mike Sanders (4-0, 0.67) and Mitch Ferrick (1-1, 3.40). Pomona-- Charlie Webb (3-1, 3.34) and Tom Gorman (4-2, 2.54).

Cal State Los Angeles-- Chris LaRiviere (1-0, 1.13) and Bill Bene (2-2, 2.74).

“Pitching is pretty much everything,” Lopez said. “In a normal conference week, you play four or five games. Everybody has their top two pitchers, but it’s the third and fourth guys that make the difference. They’re the ones that give you an opportunity to sweep doubleheaders.”

Northridge (12-6), which finished fourth last season, hasn’t seen much of any pitcher other than Penner and Hernandez, who have started 13 of the team’s 18 games. Coach Terry Craven is counting on Tony Estrada and either Leo Ramirez or Pablo Suarez to step in as his third and fourth starters. John LaRosa (2-1, 1.42 ERA) has been the bullpen stopper.

If all else fails, the Matadors can turn to hitting. Five of the nine startersare batting over .300. Catcher Scott McIntyre is lowest at .271. John Balfanz, CSUN’s all-conference first baseman, is batting .288 with four home runs, 18 RBIs and 16 walks. He has been hit six times.

Of course, each of the top teams has its share of hitters, too.

Pomona (10-10), Northridge’s opponent in its conference opener today, is led by designated hitter Jim Gomez (.441) and first baseman Charlie Webb (5 homers, 20 RBIs). Third baseman Tom Lorenz, second in the CCAA last season with a .376 average, is off to a slow start at .269.

Riverside (12-4), returns only three starters, but each was an all-conference selection. David Finley, the CCAA Player of the Year in 1986, is batting .328--a slump compared to his .413 with 13 home runs and 65 RBIs. Other returning starters for the Highlanders are second baseman Joe Koh (.354 in 1986, with 55 walks and 32 steals) and outfielder Mark Young (.358 with 21 steals last season). Sophomores Pete Weber and David Ober are off to fast starts. Weber, an outfielder, is batting .480 with 23 RBIs. Ober, a catcher, is batting .543.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (8-9), which wound up in the CCAA cellar last season, and Chapman (7-10) are again considered longshots. But Cal State L.A. (20-32, 14-16 in conference), which finished fifth last season, is given a more realistic chance.

The Golden Eagles (9-12-1 through Tuesday) have two second-team all-conference selections returning in outfielder Loy McBride and first baseman Steve Nichols. Outfielder Shaun Doyle is leading the team with a .333 batting average.