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El Camino Makes Playoffs--but Just Barely : Warriors Win Scuffle in Final Week That Hurt Some Top Teams

This spring the South Coast Conference baseball race resembled a five-person fight for survival on a life raft built for three.

El Camino College Coach Tom Hicks would claim the Warriors collected a co-championship by winning the scuffle, and two of three wins in the final week of the season support that thought. El Camino earned a bye in the first-round of the playoffs by virtue of its 3-0 season mark against co-champion Cerritos, and the Warriors (29-14) will meet Cypress (32-9) at Rancho Santiago College in one of next Friday’s eight-team regional semifinals.

However, results of the final weeks--and the final game in particular--suggest El Camino just managed to stay above water.

Five teams were in contention for three playoff slots and the conference crown with about two weeks left. Rain forced many teams to play more than their usual three games per week, and several of the games were head-to-head contests so two teams had to drown.

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But it wasn’t until Mt. San Antonio lost a 16-6 finale to Golden West and Cerritos dumped Pasadena, 13-2, that El Camino was assured a berth in the regionals and Cerritos and Golden West berths in the first round.

Mt. Sac and Cerritos began the final day of the season one game behind El Camino. Long Beach crushed El Camino, 11-1, that first Saturday in May and a Mt. Sac victory would have handed the first-round bye to Mt. Sac by virtue of its 3-0 record against El Camino.

So it took El Camino and Mt. Sac final-game losses to determine the conference winner and playoff qualifiers.

Mt. Sac did not even make the playoffs despite finishing with a better overall record (28-12) than Golden West (27-13), which took two of three from Mt. Sac during the season.

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El Camino essentially backed into the best possible situation--a share of the conference title and a first-round bye.

Still, the Warriors could not have stayed afloat without winning 15 of their 21 conference games, including a 9-win string after opening conference play at 2-2.

“That streak got us a two game-lead and established in the league’s and in our kids’ mind that we could win the thing,” said Hicks. “Every day you felt the team peaked.”

Timely hitting and solid defense fortified the streak that included consecutive wins over Fullerton, Cerritos, Golden West and Mt. Sac. Consistent starts from staff aces Jeff Beck and Lucio Chaidez secured the co-championship.

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Though he surrendered nine runs over 3 innings in the Long Beach finale, Beck finished at 11-3 (5-3 in conference) with a 3.33 ERA, capping a 22-9 two-year stint during which El Camino went 54-30. The 6-1, 205-pound right-hander, who started mostly at home, was sharpest when he kept the ball down and over the left side of the plate. El Camino’s short porch in right field convinced him last year that home plate’s right side was off limits.

“The truth is,” said Beck, who will pitch at Texas Tech next season, “I’d rather pitch on the road than at home because our field is small on the right side. I have phobias about that.”

Some conference foes had Beck-phobias. “If his arm is sound,” said Mt. Sac Coach Art Mazmanian, “he can be great.”

Beck’s shoulder stiffened during the season, but 6-5, 215-pound freshman right-hander Chaidez always appeared loose en route to a 9-1 conference record (10-4 overall) and 3.53 ERA with wins over Fullerton and Golden West and two against Cerritos.

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“Not a lot of guys can go 9-1, let alone in league,” said Hicks. “I figured if Beck could dominate the home games and Chaidez could split the road games, we’d make the playoffs. But you’d never predict that kind of success for a freshman.

“Lucio has a great mental makeup. He doesn’t care where he is pitching, who he is pitching against, what the weather is like, anything. He just wants the ball.”

Earning runs was a batting order that hit .319 in conference play and always seemed to create opportunities.

“They have no real weak hitters and no one that you have to stop,” said Cerritos Coach George Horton, whose club lost eight-run, one-run and three-run games to El Camino. “All seem to contribute, and it was different guys that hurt us each time.”

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The 3-4-5 sophomore combination of Dan Berthel, Adrian Rodriguez and Colin Franker was particularly punishing.

Berthel, a 6-3, 185-pound left fielder, batted .399 overall with 6 home runs and 35 RBIs. Rodriguez, a 5-11, 180-pound third baseman, chimed in at .346 with 48 RBIs, 17 doubles and 5 home runs. And Franker led all Warriors in average (.413), home runs (10), RBIs (53) and slugging percentage (.601).

But Franker, a 6-0, 200-pound first baseman, thinks he can do better: “I expected more from myself. I’m not displeased, but I’m not satisfied.”

What surprised Franker was how effectively the Warriors used a two-man pitching rotation playing three games a week. Yeoman help from left-hander David Seward (2-3 overall)--including a six-inning stint in a late-season 9-7 win over Golden West--and right-hander Tom Rogers spelled the rotation when an excessive number of makeup games threw it out of whack.

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Berthel thought “little things” like executing in timely situations and pitchers hitting spots manufactured a co-championship.

One significant injury changed El Camino’s plans. Freshman Jamy Villa was platooning with starting catcher Jeff Lopez but quickly inherited a full-time job when Lopez broke his leg in a car accident soon after the team began conference play at 2-2. The nine-game winning streak followed.

“I was concerned because one injury to Jamy could have hurt us,” Hicks said. “We would have been without a real catcher. But Jamy took on the challenge of catching every inning and we won a championship with him.”

Hicks leads a motley crew. Some players live in Venice and Hawthorne, others in Santa Monica and Van Nuys. Not many knew each other when the season began, but that’s changed.

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“We have calm guys and enthusiastic guys,” Franker said. “We all mix well and we’re all friends, especially after going on road trips.”

Franker and Beck mixed like oil and water early in the season. Each criticized the other’s performance, as did other pitchers and hitters. But that also has changed.

“I’ve learned that Colin doesn’t want (criticism) from me,” said Beck, “and I don’t want it from him.”


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