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The Preps : Enjoying the Spotlight : Versatile Sheff Concentrates on Baseball, His No. 1 Sport at Laguna Hills

Times Staff Writer

Chris Sheff has always stood out on the Laguna Hills High School athletic teams.

Maybe it’s because he has been a starting outfielder on the baseball team for four seasons.

Or that he was a four-year starter on the Hawks’ basketball team, and its leading scorer the past two seasons.

Maybe it’s the All-American crew cut he wears.

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Or maybe it’s that you just can’t miss Sheff playing center field in the Hawks’ baseball field. It’s only 300 feet from home plate to the center-field fence, and Sheff seems close enough to touch.

Whatever the reason, people tend to notice Sheff, particularly now that it’s baseball season and he’s free to concentrate on his No. 1 sport.

Basketball was fun, but it’s baseball that Sheff, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior, wants to pursue in college. It is, he said, the sport he loves.

“He’s been one of the top athletes ever at the school,” said Jack Hodges, Laguna Hills baseball coach. “Now that he has the chance to devote himself to baseball full time, he’s really going to improve.”

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Not that there was anything wrong with Sheff’s game before, but Hodges believes his outfielder is ready to blossom into one of the county’s best players.

Great strength--in hitting and throwing--and great speed--in stealing bases and patrolling center field--are two of Sheff’s attributes.

But his best quality may be his reliability, according to Hodges.

“Chris is a gamer,” Hodges said. “He comes up (to bat) in a lot of tough situations and comes through.”

Sheff has always seemed to have more potential than others his age. Certainly, he’s been able to do more with it.

When he was in elementary school, Sheff played in pickup basketball games with the high school guys. When he was a freshman, he started on the varsity basketball team.

He became the star of the team as a junior, averaging 16 points a game. This past season, he again led the Hawks with an 18.7-point average.

Sheff also played on the Hawks’ varsity baseball team as a freshman. By the midpoint of the season, he was starting in the Hawks’ outfield, playing all three positions. He hit “about .275 to .290,” he said, but never felt very confident at the plate.

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“It was a little bit intimidating,” Sheff said. “As a freshman I had to fight for a job. Every at-bat meant something to my chances of playing.”

Playing in the smallish outfield at Laguna Hills--a cliff at the edge of the hilltop field dictates the short center-field dimensions--also was a little difficult to get used to. Even now he admits it’s not his favorite place to play.

“It’s tough to get your legs going,” Sheff said. “It’s so shallow. You’re so dang close to the infield.”

Nevertheless, Sheff became a fixture in center as a sophomore.

As a junior, he hit .440 and stole 24 bases, fourth best in Orange County.

This season, he’s off to a record-breaking start in helping Laguna Hills to a 9-3 record.

Last Wednesday, he tied the school record with his 100th career hit, a solo home run in a 6-3 victory over Los Alamitos in the consolation championship of the Santa Ana Elks tournament. Friday, he broke the record in a doubleheader sweep of San Dimas.

Now, he’s closing in on the Orange County record of 116 career hits held by La Quinta’s Jeff Osborn (1982-84). It would appear to be well within Sheff’s grasp as Laguna Hills has 15 games remaining in its regular season. Even the Southern Section record of 133, set by Montclair Prep’s Tom McKay from 1978-81, isn’t out of the question.

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It helps that the Hawks are favorites to win their second consecutive Pacific Coast League championship. The added Southern Section playoff games would give Sheff more time to chase the records.

It also helps to have players such as Mike Helm, a senior catcher who batted .449, and Rob Milo, a senior pitcher and first baseman, in the lineup with him. The two make it tough to pitch around Sheff.

And as his sweet swing has developed, he has swatted away any lingering lack of confidence as if it were just another fastball from an opposing pitcher.

“I think I’m more prepared now,” Sheff said. “I like playing baseball a lot better now as a senior. I’m a lot more comfortable.”


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