For the past three seasons, the Cypress College baseball team has shown steady improvement under Coach Scott Pickler.
In 1986, Cypress finished fifth in the South Coast Conference. Two seasons ago, when Cypress moved to the Orange Empire Conference, the Chargers were third. Last season, Cypress finished second in the conference to state runner-up Rancho Santiago and reached the playoffs for the first time under Pickler, who is in his fifth season at the school.
Pickler's 1989 team appears to be his strongest to date and is the favorite among the conference coaches and sports information directors to win the conference title. The lofty expectations come mostly because of strong starting pitching. Jeff Patterson and Rich Lodding, both sophomore right-handers, return and are joined by right-hander Dennis Burbank, a transfer from Pepperdine.
But Pickler isn't as sold on his team as others for one reason: Orange Coast.
The Pirates, under Coach Mike Mayne, have won conference titles in 1980, '81, '82, '84, '86 and '87 and the state title in 1980.
"We can't be the favorite," Pickler said "It has to be us and Orange Coast. They have a fine club."
The conference has expanded from six to seven teams this season. Citrus left for the Foothill Conference, but Fullerton and Golden West join Cypress, Orange Coast, Rancho Santiago, Riverside and Saddleback for a 24-game schedule that starts today and ends May 6.
Here's a closer look at the Orange Empire Conference teams, with records in nonconference games:
Cypress (12-4): Cypress is led by Patterson (6-3 last season) and Lodding (6-1 and two saves). Burbank, from Valencia High School, was 11-2 as a freshman at Pepperdine last season. David Bladow and Brian Behnke return to the conference's deepest staff.
Center fielder Steve Gill and right fielder Jason Friedman return, and Doug Yates has moved from third base to first. Bobby Thome, who is the designated hitter and plays some outfield, also returns. Brett Gregory is at third, Mitch Kaylor at second and Mike Neal and Ken Kendrena are splitting time at shortstop.
Fullerton (5-6): Hornets Coach Nick Fuscardo has been helped by transfers. Rob Bailey, who hit .375 last season at San Diego State, starts in center field. Catcher Johnny Mele and third baseman Mike Segovia, transfers from Cypress, are starting, as is first baseman Sal Capraro, who transferred from Golden West but sat out last season.
Will Barber, a sophomore right-hander, is the leader of a young pitching staff. Norm Hunter, Mike Trachsel and Trevor Painton, all freshmen, are among those contending for the other starting and relieving spots.
Golden West (6-3): The movement at Golden West is toward new things--players and coach alike. Coach Burt Villarreal takes over for Fred Hoover, who retired from Golden West after 22 seasons and is working as an assistant at Cal State Fullerton.
Villarreal was left with three starters from last season's team. Craig Paquette, who has switched from third base to shortstop, hit .386 with seven home runs and 58 RBIs last year. Catcher Dan Villigas has returned, as has Toby Foreman, a sophomore left-hander who has moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation. He is joined by John Gonzales, a sophomore right-hander who transferred from OCC.
Sophomore Ken Lynch, who played some last season, is in right field. He is joined in the outfield by freshmen Frank Herman in center and Steve McKowan in left.
Josh Bammer, a freshman from Edison, has taken over at third, and Robb Carabba, a freshman from Marina, is at second.
Orange Coast (10-2-1): OCC returns four starters: Craig Nixon in left, Jason Young in center, Hector Santa Cruz at second and Darrel Conner at first. After that, most of the Pirates are new but talented.
Mike Kelly, who played at Cal State Long Beach two seasons ago, is catching. Eddie Pierce, a transfer from UC Santa Barbara, is playing right field and working out of the bullpen. Marty Cordova, who transferred from Nevada Las Vegas, is at third, and Isidro Maldanado, a freshman from Garden Grove High, is at shortstop.
Scott Talanoa, a sophomore transfer from Cal State Fullerton, is the team's designated hitter and is tied for the team lead in home runs with Pierce at three each.
Ryan Thibault, a sophomore left-hander, and John Douris, a freshman right-hander from Canada, are both 3-0 this season.
Rancho Santiago (6-6): The Dons return two starters--left-hander Willie Navarrette (11-0) and right-hander Jack Bailey (7-3)--but the rest of Coach Don Sneddon's staff is inexperienced.
Unlike last season, scoring runs is a problem for Rancho Santiago these days. Bob Hamelin and his state records of 31 home runs and 105 RBIs have left for the Royals' minor league organization.
Rancho Santiago did well in getting Conrad Colby from Estancia High to play first and if he, or anyone else for, has one-third the season Hamelin had, the Dons could contend.
Tim Reynolds, the only returning infielder, is at third. Joey Townsend, who split time last season, is starting behind the plate. Danny Ontiveros and John McTaggart return to the outfield, where they are joined by freshman Marty Neff from Magnolia.
Riverside (1-8): The Tigers were 4-32-1 last season and finished last in the conference, but Coach Dave Brown thinks this team will make a marked improvement.
Riverside is automatically a threat anytime sophomore right-hander Mike Garcia, a transfer from USC, is pitching. Ron Warner, who hit .348 last season, is back to play first base.
Saddleback (5-1): The Gauchos are off to their best start in three seasons and hope to improve on a fifth-place conference finish last year. Saddleback returns only two position players--outfielder Jeff Walters and catcher Donny Harrell.
Walters, who hit .341 last season, is starting in center. Sean Therien, a freshman from Saddleback High, is in left, and Justin Pysar, from Canada, is in right.
Harrell is serving as a utility player this spring after being replaced behind the plate by Matt Dahlgren, a freshman from University High.
The pitching staff is led by sophomores Todd Bush, Eric Patton and David Ross.