As a sophomore pitcher at Bishop Montgomery High School, Erik Russell found out for the first time what it was like to stare down off the mound into the barrels of Mater Dei’s bats.
Now, facing mighty Mater Dei is a scary enough task for any sophomore hurler. But for Russell, it was even tougher, because the hitters he had been pitching against the year before were from schools with enrollments of roughly 200 students--like Providence of Burbank or Chadwick School of Palos Verdes.
And the lineup that the baseball team of Mar Vista Windward (150 enrollment) sent to the plate was never confused with Murderer’s Row--or Mater Dei, for that matter.
Russell, the ace of Bishop Montgomery’s pitching staff, is a senior now. But he spent his freshman year at Queen of Angels--an all-boys boarding school in Mission Hills in the San Fernando Valley that prepares young men for the Roman Catholic priesthood--toiling on the hill against the likes of Chadwick and Providence and Santa Monica Crossroads.
“I didn’t really fit at Queen of Angels,” Russell said. “I guess the priesthood wasn’t my thing. We lived in dorms, and it was strict--but we found ways around that.”
By the following year, Russell had transferred to Bishop Montgomery and was trying to fire fastballs past the power-stocked teams of the Angelus League.
“It was kind of crazy that first year,” Russell said. “Those first couple of months I had a lot of adjusting to do.”
Especially being tall, dark and handsome--and armed with an 85-mile-an-hour heater--after spending the previous year with 145 boys in a seminary boarding school.
“I guess it would be a tough adjustment,” said Bishop Montgomery Coach Bob Anderson. “Especially with all the women hanging over him. Now, I’ve seen girls come out to see the guys play. But the girls used to come out to watch Erik practice . They’d flock over him, while he was running laps, shagging fly balls, whatever. He used to get a little sidetracked.”
Russell handled the attention--and Mater Dei--with his typical easy-going attitude.
“I was a little bit shelter-shocked, though,” Russell conceded.
That’s better than being shell-shocked . And fortunately for Russell, a 6-2 right-hander, that doesn’t happen very often. Russell is one of those tall, intimidating power pitchers that college coaches and professional scouts love so much. His fastball, when it’s on, is nearly unhittable.
Anderson, for one, sometimes wishes Russell’s best pitch were a little bit more hittable.
“Erik tries to spot the ball on a pin too much,” Anderson said. “His biggest mountain to overcome is his walks. He sometimes tries to be too fine.”
In Russell’s three years at Bishop Montgomery, opposing batters have hit a meager .162 against him. He’s struck out 70 hitters in his 60 innings as a Knight. And Russell has allowed only five extra-base hits in his entire high school career .
Which goes to show that when Russell gets the ball over the plate, opponents usually don’t do too much with it. When he’s throwing strikes, Russell is one of the most dominating pitchers in the South Bay.
“I’ll take that any day,” Anderson said. “Let him throw strikes every day. Don’t try to strike ‘em out, just get ‘em out.”
But on Wednesday, Russell’s control was again his Achilles’ heel in his second start of the season against St. Paul.
Russell (1-1) pitched 4 2/3 innings of no-hit ball in that game. Unfortunately, he walked five and beaned another in the same span. St. Paul jumped at its good fortune and manufactured five runs to chase Russell from the game early.
“He was just missing by an inch here and there,” Anderson said. “Before I took him out, he was almost trying to aim the ball. Once Erik becomes a confident pitcher, he’ll be a tremendous pitcher. He got roughed up, but he’ll get back up on that hill. If the horse bucks you off, get back on.”
Bishop Montgomery (10-2-1) will need a confident Russell for the upcoming Angelus League stretch drive. The Knights, in Anderson’s third year as a coach, rolled unbeaten through the preseason only to drop two of their first three Angelus League games to Servite and St. Paul.
The team heads north this week for a five-day Easter Break trip. The Knights will play Dos Pueblos of Santa Barbara on Thursday and Santa Maria on Saturday in their two final non-league tune-ups before steering back into the thick of the Angelus League schedule.
“The trip is gonna make or break our season,” Anderson said.
Two years ago, when Anderson took the helm of Bishop Montgomery’s struggling program, no one would have thought the Knights could be a contender in the Angelus League. The school has yet to reach the playoffs in baseball since it joined the league.
Anderson was hired as baseball coach three weeks before the 1987 season. That year, Bishop Montgomery stumbled to a 4-16 record--but the Knights won three of those games in the season’s final week. Last year, the improved Knights finished 8-12, including five wins against league opponents.
This year, the Knights, playing Anderson’s style of scrappy baseball, could battle their way to a berth in the playoffs.
“We just have a bunch of singles, doubles hitters,” Anderson said. “We try to hit line drives, hit the alleys, and make things happen with aggressive base running.”
Russell is Bishop Montgomery’s main power threat. He’s hit a pair of big home runs--against Mary Star of the Sea and against Serra--and is batting an even .400 in the third spot in the Knight’s lineup. Senior first baseman Joe Ezzolo, the clean-up hitter, is batting .514 with one home run.
Bishop Montgomery’s leadoff man, Curtis Bowman, is a 15-year-old shortstop who was a reserve infielder on Torrance’s junior varsity last year. He transferred to Bishop for his junior season and responded with a .362 batting average, a .620 on-base percentage, and some smooth leather work in the field. No. 2 hitter Dudley Callahan, a senior third baseman, is batting .405 and has become a hit-and-run specialist batting behind the speedy Bowman.
Russell is the No. 1 starting pitcher, although he relinquished some of his playing time earlier this year to give some of Bishop Montgomery’s younger pitchers some work in the preseason. Andy Branch, another senior right-hander, is 1-1, and sophomore Armando Cervantes has won all three of his starts, including a gutty pitching performance in the Knights’ 5-2 win over defending Angelus League champion Mater Dei.
The contributions to the Knights’ success this season have been democratic. Anthony Vuoso, a senior right-hander (whom Anderson had intended to use only as a spot starter), pitched the team’s best game of the year when he came within a pitch of throwing a perfect game against Marshall in the consolation championship of the Serra Tournament. Vuoso lost the perfect game when he gave up a triple with an 0-2 count with two outs in the seventh.
“We’ve never gotten much respect around the Angelus League,” Anderson said. “I think we’re just as good as any team in the league, but we’re a young team, so we’ve got to go out and prove it.”
One of those young players, junior southpaw Brian Papia, has emerged as a bullpen stopper (four saves) and has allowed Anderson to shift Russell from reliever to a starter for his senior season.
Russell had the same type of eye-opening success as a young pitcher. As a sophomore, he came in against Mary Star with the bases loaded and no one out and struck out the side in 10 pitches. He turned the same trick twice last season, against Mira Costa and St. Paul.
In last year’s league opener, against Mater Dei (then 9-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation), Russell proved he had the stuff to be a starter. John Newville, last year’s ace, went down with a groin pull in the first inning, and Russell came in from right field to shut down Mater Dei with a six-inning, nine-strikeout performance as if it was--say, Windward.
“The only thing he needs to work on is confidence,” Anderson said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of talent. He just needs to get out on the mound and do it.”
Russell had enough raw ability to earn a spot on the Houston Astros’ Southern California area scout team this past winter. On that team, Russell honed his skills against college and minor league players, and Vern Ruhle, the team’s pitching coach, showed him a split-fingered fastball.
And he learned some valuable lessons--one in particular from Scott Kline of UCLA, who crushed a 3-2 fastball from Russell that sailed about 425 feet over the center-field fence.
“It was a real good experience,” Russell said. “Those college guys are gonna hit anything you throw them. I learned that if you make a mistake, you pay for it.”