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O’Connor Sticks by Decision, Prepares for State Tournament

Times Staff Writer

Once Kevin O’Connor finally picked college over professional baseball, he figured his days of indecision were over.

O’Connor, who hit .394 as a senior shortstop at Mater Dei High School last spring and had an 18-game hitting streak to open the season, was offered a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 10th round in June.

He thought it over for a week, then decided to attend Fullerton, mainly for the opportunity to play for Coach Augie Garrido.

“I’d always wanted to play at Fullerton,” said O’Connor, 18. “You sign at a college for the coach. The strength of the program is important and so are the academics, but it’s really the coach you sign for. You look for a coach you can trust, and I really wanted a chance to play for Coach Garrido.”

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But in July, local papers started carrying the news that Garrido had been offered the head coaching job at the University of Illinois. O’Connor saw his dream officially move east Aug. 13.

Then O’Connor was faced with another decision.

His first reaction was to follow Garrido to Illinois, but this would mean breaking his letter of intent and having to sit out two seasons under NCAA rules. He also could stay at Fullerton and play for the new coach, whom the college says it will select by Sept. 1.

O’Connor still could sign with the Cubs, or he could play at a community college and wait for the next draft in June.

“The decision he had to make was really weighing on him,” said Bob Ickes, Mater Dei baseball coach. “You could tell he was bothered by it.”

On Sunday, O’Connor finally made up his mind----he was staying at Fullerton.

“I finally realized Cal State Fullerton is the place for me,” O’Connor said. “They had a great recruiting year and should be good for a long time.

“They lost a great coach. But I don’t feel down on Coach Garrido for leaving. He did what was best for him. I would have done the same thing.”

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O’Connor is one of 11 Orange County players who will play for the 619/714 area code team, one of six teams that will begin competition today in the first California State Baseball Games on Zupo Field at Lodi.

A left-handed hitter who switch-hits on occasion, O’Connor is expected to play shortstop, the outfield and third base during the tournament, according to Jack Hodges of Laguna Hills, who is coaching the 619/714 team.

The Cubs--and the Titans--believe O’Connor’s future is as a third baseman. There’s only one problem: O’Connor said he has played third base only four or five times in his life.

“It’s sort of weird to hear people always talk to me about playing there,” O’Connor said. “I’ve taken some ground balls and worked at it a little in practice, but that’s nothing like in a game. The ball gets to you much quicker at third than at short. It’s a difficult position.

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“But I guess I can adjust. After all, that’s where everyone expects me to play in the future, I guess.”

Adjusting to a new position isn’t anything new for O’Connor, who changed positions three times at Mater Dei.

As a freshman, he was a catcher. In order to make the varsity team as a sophomore, he moved to the outfield. Then as a junior, he was switched to shortstop.

“He’s that type of player,” Ickes said. “He’s had that ‘Hey coach, I’ll play anywhere’ look since he was a freshman. He has a very strong arm and the athletic ability to play anywhere.”

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During the second week of his junior season, O’Connor and center fielder Larry Sutton collided chasing a popup behind second base during practice. O’Connor needed surgery on his left knee and missed the rest of the season and most of the summer program.

This slowed his development at shortstop, and, at the time, Ickes thought about moving him to third, where he would need less range. But O’Connor came back from the injury at full strength and was able to play shortstop as a senior.

“I’ve been bounced around so much for so long, it really doesn’t matter where I play,” O’Connor said. “I’ll play anywhere as long as I’m out there. It really doesn’t matter to me, but sometimes I get frustrated when I have trouble at a new position. I figure before too long I might even get to pitch an inning or two.”

Tournament Notes The four-day tournament, sanctioned by the U.S. Baseball Federation, features players who graduated from high school in 1987 or will graduate in 1988 and who were selected to participate by their coaches or professional scouts. . . . Other Orange County players on the 714/619 team include Jason Moler and Doug Saunders of Esperanza High School, Mark Dion and Mike Wilson of La Quinta, Larry Sutton and Joe Ciccarella of Mater Dei, Andy Croghan of Servite, Tommy Adams of Capistrano Valley, Al Rodriguez of Westminster, who will attend UC Irvine, and Chris Robinson of Troy, who will attend Cal State Fullerton. . . . Bob Ickes of Mater Dei High School, Dave Demarest of La Quinta High School and Rich Graves of Riverside High School will work as assistants to Jack Hodges of Laguna Hills for the 714/619 team.

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The 714/619 team (sponsored by the Padres) meets the 707/916 team (Cubs) today at 4 and the 213 team (Dodgers) tonight at 6. It then will play the 408/415 team (Giants) Friday at 10, the 209 team (Rangers) Friday at 8:30 p.m. and the 805/818 team (Brewers) Saturday at 8:30 p.m. The teams with the two best records play for the championship Sunday at 1 p.m.


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