Frank Cruz, University High School baseball coach, says his 1986 team may have had more talent than this year’s squad.
Chuck Ice, Crossroads School baseball coach, thinks his 1988 team, though young and inexperienced, may have been more talented than last year’s Roadrunners, who won the CIF-Southern Section Small Schools (large division) title.
If both coaches are right in their assessments, Cruz won a Los Angeles City championship without his best team last week, and Ice lost a chance to win a second straight Southern Section championship, this time in the 1-A Division, with one of his better teams.
With junior Eric Alexander pitching his third complete game in a week, University defeated defending champion Bell, 6-2, for the 3-A City title at Dodger Stadium.
Crossroads lost the 1-A final to Fillmore, 4-2, at Blair Field in Long Beach, and Ice said: “We certainly did not perform up to expectations.”
Cruz felt he had a very strong team “when we lost in the quarterfinals to Huntington Park in 1986.” This year’s players, he said, were “not as talented” as the 1986 Warriors, but “they were more focused on a goal.”
At the start of the season, he said, the team’s first goal was to make the playoffs and its second was to win the Western League championship. In recent years, the league has been dominated by Venice, which won three consecutive 3-A City championships before losing the 3-A final to Bell last year.
At the beginning of the year, top pitcher Alexander, who had a 7-1 record this year, was ineligible, and seniors Greg Foerstel and Eric Allen stepped in and pitched well, Cruz said. University won five out of its first six league games, and Foerstel (9-1 overall) won four of those games and Allen (4-3) nailed down the other victory.
The victories by Foerstel and Allen gave University the momentum to reach the playoffs and win the league title, Cruz said. After that the team’s goals were to get to Dodger Stadium and win the championship game.
If this year’s University team was less talented than the 1986 club, “this team was smart,” Cruz said. “They knew what they wanted.”
Warrior senior shortstop David Ravitz, headed for UCLA, was the catalyst, said Cruz. Ravitz was a first-team all-league selection, hit about .350 overall and nearly “80% of the time he got on base he scored.”
He said other spark plugs included senior second baseman Thomas Hoffman, who weighs about 135 pounds and stands 5-3 1/2; senior first baseman Jaime Carillo, Western League player of the year; junior Kevin Millar, a second-team all-leaguer who was 3 for 4 at the plate against Bell; all-league senior center fielder Sal Moreno; senior catcher Scott Beber, who batted in two runs at Dodger Stadium and is a National Merit Scholar; outfielders Brendon Buchsbaum, a senior; Josh Woods, a junior, and senior designated hitter Tony Dominguez.
Each made key contributions, but Cruz’s favorite may have been Hoffman, who will attend Brandeis University in the fall.
As a sophomore, Hoffman was barely 5 feet tall, weighed less than 90 pounds and couldn’t “hit the ball out of the infield,” Cruz said. “I told him: ‘Get out of here, kid; you’ll never play on my team.’
“But he gained 20 pounds last summer by lifting weights and hits the ball hard now. That kind of determination got us to Dodger Stadium.”
Crossroads showed the same determination, overcoming inexperience and injury that led to a rash of pre-league losses.
Senior Steve Solomon, the hard-hitting senior outfielder-pitcher who has signed a letter of intent with Stanford, missed nine games before Delphic League play after he broke his right wrist (his throwing arm) in a collision with another outfielder in winter baseball. Ice was not only without a star early in the season but also had to replace seven regulars from last year’s Southern Section champions.
As a result, the Roadrunners, who like to test themselves by playing teams in higher divisions in pre-league games, stumbled at the start. They finished with a 9-1 record in the Delphic League but lost 10 non-league games and were 21-11 overall.
Against Fillmore and top pitcher Willie Leighton, Crossroads, with Solomon on the mound, got out to a 2-0 lead but got into trouble in the fourth inning. Solomon loaded the bases on two walks and a single, and Fillmore scored its first run on a sacrifice fly after a disputed play at home.
Ice said that Crossroads senior catcher Eric Newhouse told him he had tagged the runner and “it wasn’t close. There’s nothing you can do about that, but it certainly turned the inning around.” Fillmore scored two more runs in the fourth and added an insurance run in the sixth.
Nevertheless, the Crossroads coach said, the play at the plate was not the reason why Fillmore won. “We had plenty of opportunities, both offensively and defensively, to win the ballgame, but we didn’t get the job done.
“And if one call is going to beat you, you shouldn’t put an umpire in the position to win or lose a game. We had opportunities to drive in runs.”
As an example of his team’s batting luck that day, Ice pointed to what happened to Newhouse, who came into the game with a .458 batting average and a 16-game hitting streak. “Eric had three hard ground balls, but they were right at people,” he said.
There should be other championship games for University and Crossroads, which has been in a title game in four of the last five years and won another Southern Section crown in 1985.
Cruz said some strong players from the junior varsity should be able to replace some of the seniors that he will lose to graduation. He said that he should also have a solid pitching combination in Alexander, who was tough in the playoffs and the final, and Jay Walker, who pitched mostly in relief this year and had a couple of key saves.
Ice said his returning players include freshman pitcher-outfielder DJ Sutton, who had a 10-3 record this year and was the winning pitcher in the team’s three other playoff games this season, and four starters at other positions: junior outfielder Rudy Freeman, sophomore designated hitter Ian Shulman, junior first baseman Andrew Bernstein and sophomore second baseman Hugh Mangum. He said that junior John Rosenfeld, who had a 2-4 record in 45 innings, has the potential to be “a very good pitcher with work on control.”
Junior Mike McLoughlin, a backup catcher this season, faces the difficult task of replacing Newhouse, who finished the year with a .451 batting average, threw out 17 of 28 runners on stolen base attempts and picked 16 runners off base.
Solomon also will leave a large gap. After a slow start because of his injury, he finished with a .359 batting average. He also hit home runs in four straight games, a school record, and finished with 13 career homers, another Crossroads record.
University’s Cruz may also have learned something about winning games from Ice, whose teams have compiled a record of 127-55 in his seven years at Crossroads.
In 1977, Cruz, 28, was a senior center fielder for St. Monica High School, and Ice was the head coach. They won a Santa Fe League championship that year. Cruz also served as an assistant to Ice at Crossroads for two years.
Did Cruz learn anything from Ice when he played and coached for him?
“One important lesson he taught me was to surround yourself with good people,” Cruz said. He said that he has done that, receiving a lot of valuable aid from Hal Kurtzman, his chief assistant since he came to University four years ago. Kurtzman was an All-City player for University in 1968, the last time that the school won a league title, he added.
Ice, 42, said that Cruz has done “an outstanding job” at University and was also a big help to him at Crossroads.
Besides the need for good assistants, Ice said he thinks that Cruz also picked up a tactic from him that University used to score a big run against Bell last week.
“The other thing that Frank learned from me, whether he admits it or not, is the squeeze play. He didn’t like it as a player, but it’s nice to see that he likes it now.”