When the Western Regional baseball tournament was over and Cal State Dominguez Hills had earned its first trip to the Division II College World Series, Coach Andy Lopez thought first of his seniors.
"I was happy for the guys like (Mike) Perryman and (Fred) Hanker, guys that have been here four years, who showed up when talking about a national title was just talk. I felt a special spot in my heart for them."
Just five seasons removed from coaching Mira Costa High School to a CIF title, Lopez has built the Toros into a West Coast power that should have a legitimate shot in the six-team, double elimination World Series beginning Friday at Troy State University in Montgomery, Ala.
Lopez's teams are 108-58 over the last three seasons and take a 42-13 record into their World Series opener Saturday against Columbus College of Georgia (38-11).
Though Lopez admits he has had more talented teams, he has had none that played better down the stretch or had a better feel for the jugular. Not even a talented group of Matadors could stop these Toros. Indeed, over the last month they have been positively Torofying, winning 32 of 38 games, including 12 of the last 13.
"I felt very good going into the regional," Lopez said. "The last 10 games of conference usually tell you a lot about your team. We were 9-1. I felt confident. I think it helped the kids--it kind of confirmed to a lot of guys, if they had any doubts, we were for real."
Dominguez Hills, which played host for the three-team regional, bombed Chico State, 12-1, on Friday to eliminate the Northern California representative. The Toros then swept the Cal State Northridge Matadors in a Saturday double-header, 5-1 and 6-3, to earn the trip to the World Series.
Everything seemed to go the Toros' way, including Lopez's strategy to pitch Joe Cortez against Chico State and save his ace, Mike Aspray, for Northridge. Cortez beat Chico, then Aspray and Brian Ayers got the victories against Northridge. Aspray, co-pitcher of the year in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., was named regional most valuable player. He tossed a complete game four-hitter to improve his record to 11-3.
"We were at home and things went our way, but we made 'em go our way, too," Lopez said. "I'm surprised we went through it in that fashion only because of the level of competition."
Among those who rose to the occasion in the tournament were first baseman Jeff Sears, who had two hits in each game and three runs batted in; second baseman Lazaro Inguanzo, who was 6 for 11 with 2 RBI, handled 20 chances without an error and helped the Toros turn six double plays, and designated hitter Joe Jones, who slumped most of the season but came through with 6 hits and 3 RBI in the regional.
Outfielder Jon Beuder leads the team in hitting at .368 and has 10 doubles, 7 triples, 5 home runs and 42 runs batted in. Outfielder Fred Hanker, a .309 hitter, is the top power man with 15 doubles, 7 homers and 60 RBI. Catcher Chris Plank has 7 homers.
Cortez (8-1) and Ayers (8-1) team with Aspray to give Lopez a solid--and varied--starting rotation, and Chris Haslock has had a dominant season in relief. The junior, who picked up a save in the second game against Northridge, has a 7-2 record, 2.68 earned-run average and 12 saves.
With a team batting average of .286 the Toros aren't overpowering, but they do everything well, play strong defense and don't seem to make critical mistakes. "I had my doubts early in the season because of some inconsistencies that could hurt us over the long season," Lopez said. "But this team has responded to our philosophy better than any other team I have had, and that has jelled us into a solid unit."
Lopez's task now is to convince his team that getting there is only half the fun. "I really don't want us to go there and just be happy to be there," he said. "Our tone is we want to go there and represent the West Coast in respectable style--and, Lord willing, win it."
The World Series opens Friday with a double-header: New Haven (28-4) vs. Wright State of Ohio (39-12) and the University of Tampa (40-9-1) vs. Troy State (34-10-1), the defending national champ.
On Saturday, the losers of those games will play at 4 p.m. preceding the Toros' 7 p.m. game. The series runs through Wednesday.
Columbus is led by three heavy hitters including Chip Duncan, also the team's top pitcher at 9-4. He's batting .471 with 12 homers and 44 RBI. First baseman Teddy Williams is hitting .432 with 16 homers and 53 RBI. All-American outfielder Scott Riddle is hitting .353 with 12 home runs and 56 RBI. Riddle led the nation with 83 RBI last year. The Cougars have been rated No. 2 much of the season, just ahead of Dominguez Hills.
Defending champion Troy State has one of the nation's hottest pitchers in junior left-hander James Wray, 6-3 with 91 strikeouts in 67 innings and 61 in his last 30. The team's top hitter is first baseman Jude Rinaldi at .422 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI.
New Haven features three .400 hitters, while right-handers Mark Hatje and Mike Pecock are 9-1 each. Catcher Curt Coons, at .448 with 12 home runs, hit three homers in the regional. Tampa is led by All-American first baseman Tino Martinez, batting .418 with 12 homers and 75 RBI. Wright State, which starts seven juniors and a freshman, is led by outfielder Brian Bailey (.380, 32 stolen bases) and catcher Wayne LePan (.333, 12 HR, 51 RBI).
Lopez said, "If we can go and just play the game and not . . . the World Series, the hoopla, we have a good chance to do well. But we have to keep that perspective."