Orange County Prep Review : For Jeff Wood, Baseball Is Just the Icing

The idiosyncrasy of La Quinta High School left fielder Jeff Wood's batting ritual is more than a meaningless movement.

When Wood, an 18-year-old senior, steps to the plate, he moves the bat back and forth down by his legs before he lifts it to his shoulder.

It's a hockey mannerism.

Of course.

Baseball is a second sport for Wood, whose parents moved to Southern California from Vancouver, Canada, before he was born.

An accomplished forward in ice hockey--he has traveled extensively in the United States and Canada and as far away as Finland to compete on various teams--Wood will play hockey in college next year at Bowdoin College, a prestigious academic school in Brunswick, Me., that has a top Division III hockey program.

For now, though, the stick he is swinging is a bat. And he has been swinging it pretty well. Wood is batting .362 for La Quinta (15-2), the fifth-ranked team in Orange County. He leads the team in runs scored with 17.

A year ago, Wood hit only about .150. "This year is much better," he said. "I'm kind of surprised."

The difference may partly be a result of taking a little of the hockey out of his baseball swing.

"There's a big difference (in the swings)," Wood said. "In baseball, you're supposed to keep your right leg (back leg; Wood is a right-handed hitter) planted. In hockey, you swing your back leg. I used to swing my back leg when I hit all the time, and it cut my power."

Wood also has changed from a 34-ounce bat to a 32-ounce bat. "It swings a lot quicker," he said.

Wood, who said he began playing hockey at age 7 simply because he wanted to play a sport, plays on a club team organized out of a West Covina rink and on a state all-star team.

There is little conflict between baseball and hockey, although Wood missed a league baseball game this season because he had to play hockey.

"It's funny," Wood said. "(Dave Demarest, La Quinta coach) told me sophomore year when I missed a couple of baseball games that I'd never be able to do that on varsity. But he came to a couple of (hockey) games and realized it was for real. It's not some joke. He's been great about it."

LeRon Ellis of Mater Dei, who has signed with the University of Kentucky, scored 18 points to help lead the South to a 121-94 victory over the North in the McDonald's Derby Festival Classic basketball all-star game in Louisville, Ky., Saturday night.

Ellis is now ineligible to compete in high school athletics because of a Southern Section rule that strips football and basketball all-star game participants of their high school eligibility in all sports.

Ellis chose to drop off the track team in order to participate in the all-star game.

His situation is similar to that of Ricky Butler of Ocean View, who has signed with Kansas. Butler was a member of the volleyball team until he decided to play in the Joint Effort High School All-American basketball classic in Denver on April 10.

Butler, who at first did not plan to play in the all-star game, changed his mind and quit the volleyball team.

Although two of Orange County's most prominent athletes have had to drop second sports, Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas said the rule has not come under scrutiny.

"We've had no inquiries," Thomas said. "That rule has not been an office problem. . . . Once they leave the amateur ranks of high school, they are no longer high school athletes. That's a choice they make."

The rule does not prohibit competition in all-star games in sports other than football and basketball.

"(It covers) the money sports," Thomas said, noting that only a small number of students--players who are of national caliber in major sports and who play another sport later in the year--are affected.

Butler, not surprisingly, is no fan of the rule.

"It's stupid," he said. "You played hard and worked hard for basketball and felt you deserved to play one all-star game.

"I like volleyball. It's fun. But I had to let my teammates down. They should let you play. You've worked hard in one sport, you should also be able to play another, and you should be able to play in an all-star game."

For Eugene Novella, a third baseman for Santa Ana Valley who had nine stolen bases and ranked among the Orange County leaders, hopes for his senior season ended suddenly two weeks ago when his knee gave out on him.

"I guess after so many years, it finally gave up," said Novella, 17, who has stretched tendons but still hopes to play baseball at a community college.

"It had been hurting quite awhile," he said. "I was trying to ignore it, but it got so I couldn't. Finally one day during school, it started popping and buckling. The next thing I know, I'm out of baseball."

Novella must wear a brace for up to two months. He still goes to practice every day and sits on the bench during games, although he no longer dresses out, and he cannot practice.

"The brace went on, and that was it," Novella said. "All I can do is wait."

Novella said doctors have told him his knee should be back to normal in a couple of months.

"Unfortunately, it happened to me right in my senior year," Novella said.

Prep Notes

Cypress High School finished second in the 32-team Pomona Elks baseball tournament, losing to Alhambra, 3-2, in the final Wednesday despite a three-hitter by Jason Livingston. Center fielder Steve Winterburn (8 for 15 with 5 runs scored) and infielder Jeff Magallanes (.357, 6 runs scored) were named to the all-tournament team. John Garringer went 6 for 16, driving in six runs.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees recently approved Corona del Mar High's request to rename its gymnasium Jack Errion Gymnasium in honor of its retired basketball coach. Errion led the Sea Kings to two Southern Section 3-A titles in 10 seasons. He coached for 36 seasons and won 571 games before he retired in March 1986.

John Arabia, a 6-foot 9-inch center from Servite, signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at United States International University in San Diego. . . . San Diego State's Scott Hoth, an El Toro High School graduate, qualified for the NCAA track and field championships with a hammer throw of 201-feet 7-inches in the recent Sun Angel Invitational at Tempe, Ariz. The NCAA qualifying mark is 200-2. Hoth's throw also set a school record, breaking the previous mark of 199-11 set by Jim Thiss in 1983.

Santiago is accepting applications for the position of head boys' basketball coach with a teaching position. . . . Mater Dei is accepting applications for a girls' varsity basketball coach. Applications close May 1.

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