Baseball practice begins each day after Ray Clifton turns over the engine of the 13-year-old school van and drives his team from the blacktop plains of Liberty Christian High School to the green, tot-filled fields of Liberty Christian Elementary School.
The players dress in a makeshift locker room next to a first-grade classroom. Then they go about creating a makeshift baseball diamond on a football field that is bordered by a jungle gym and swing set. (Practice stops at least once each day when a kid wanders into the line of fire).
If the players need to work on hitting, they trek to the local batting cages, where each player must provide his own quarters for the machines. There's no room to hit at the elementary school; when the team tried it, too many balls flew over the fence and assaulted passing cars.
Clifton took over the team five years ago--the season after the school forfeited its last 14 games because no one wanted to play. He forbids his players to complain about the limited facilities the Huntington Beach school of 92 students can provide.
"I don't want them to dwell on what they don't have," Clifton said. "I want them to think about what they have."
And this season they have a lot. Liberty Christian is 15-2 and hitting .441 as a team, in large part because of three players.
Bryan James plays shortstop, is hitting .620 and has stolen 86 consecutive bases, a state record. Pitcher Chris Buckels is 6-1, hitting .596 and has struck out 67 batters in 32 innings. Catcher John Van Dyke is hitting .533 and has had only three passed balls in four years.
Exceptional numbers. The question is: Are the three exceptional players, or exceptional small school players? In a county that, year after year, produces some of the best high school baseball talent in the nation, big numbers at small schools tend not to impress.
"You get the feeling that people think of us as putzy little players," Van Dyke said.
All three have a connection with the big time. James and Van Dyke are ballboys and clubhouse attendants for the Angels. Buckels' cousin, Gary, is a pitcher in the Angels' farm system.
They know what the big time looks like, they'd just like the big time to give them a better look.
"Scouts will give kids from small schools looks," said Jack Hodges, the Laguna Hills coach. "They just don't look quite as often."
Clifton says he hasn't seen a scout or recruiter at a Liberty Christian game.
"Sometimes I wish I went to a big high school so I could get a college to look at me," James said.
It's a feeling all three share. At one time or another, each has considered going to a larger public school so he could be seen by more fans, scouts and recruiters.
But would they match up?
Clifton admits there would be a drop in the numbers. Of James he said: "If he played at Ocean View or Marina I don't think he'd be hitting over .600. He'd probably be at .550 . . . I know there are people who don't take us seriously. But don't judge this little school until you come and see us play. At least give us a look."
A junior, Buckels' dream is to attend USC, a school to which he feels tied because his great grandfather owned the construction company that built Heritage Hall.
But Buckels knows one building, albeit a very nice building, does not make him a baseball prospect. "I'll probably have to go to them, because they're probably not going to make the trip to see me," he said.
He considered transferring to Fountain Valley, just blocks from his house, but he has stayed at Liberty Christian, where he's happy but unnoticed.
At 6-1, Buckels is averaging better than two strikeouts per inning, his greatest weapon is a variation on the knuckleball his cousin Gary taught him.
"He calls it the Buckel-ball," Chris said. "You throw it with top spin and it dances and then just drops off the table."
Van Dyke, who has caught his share of college pitchers in summer leagues, said Buckels' knuckleball is by far the best he has seen.
"It breaks twice," Van Dyke said. "Some of the people at this level (small school) are really overmatched."
Which can be a problem. Buckels admits his mind wanders when things are going ridiculously easy. But he realizes that if he is to have a chance at USC or a comparable school, his statistics must be in the fantastic range, and he must take advantage of every overmatched hitter.
"My stats concern me," he said. "If you don't have really great statistics at this level, colleges and scouts will just pass right over your name."
James is the first to admit that his incredible record of 86 consecutive stolen bases over four seasons is a product of his environment as well as his talent.
Catcher, a tough position to play at any level, is usually bankrupt at the small school level. Therefore, most of the Southern Section's steal records are held by small school players. For example, nine of the 10 top marks for stolen bases in a season are held by schools with 200 or fewer students.
Just a week ago, Southern California Christian stole 39 bases in a game against California School of the Deaf, and that wasn't a record . The record is 43 by Temple Christian (80 students) against Harbor Christian (35).
Still, sheer volume tells you that James, admittedly not a world-class sprinter, does know a thing or two about reading a pitcher.
"I study pitchers; I read their hips," he said. "When it rotates, I'm gone."
It's also the product of James' style, which Clifton describes as "sweaty, grimy, dirty."
But the worst James can do during practice are grass stains, since he can't practice stealing on the all-grass practice field.
That's OK with Clifton who, when he was coaching in North Carolina, once had a player slide into second during practice and had the base come up and cut his leg.
"He had to have about million stitches," Clifton said. "So we don't practice it, we talk about it."
Besides being able to steal bases, James is the team leader in slipping ice down Clifton's pants.
"Bryan has a way of keeping everything cool ," Clifton said.
JOHN VAN DYKE
The fact that Van Dyke is a catcher may give him the best chance of the three at breaking into a big-time program.
He threw out 25 of 30 baserunners last season and has thrown out 17 of 22 this season.
He has the classic catching body, block-like. Though he has the lowest batting average of the three--yeah, he's dying at .533--Clifton says Van Dyke is his team's most important player.
"He's the backbone," Clifton said.
For the past three years, his life has revolved around the game. He knows he has to work twice as hard because of where he's playing.
He and James attended the Southwest Professional Baseball Camp in Tucson last summer. Van Dyke was chosen as one of the camp's top prospects. He has worked on everything from throwing to running-- "I'm so much faster," he said. "I used to run like I had a piano on my back."
He played in two summer leagues last summer, one a collection of mostly college talent that traveled to play in Australia.
"I didn't think I could hang with the college guys," he said. "But then I found out that the better your competition is, the better you get."
Van Dyke hit .340 during the Australian tour.
So there they are. None of the three is desperate about the situation. They figure if they really have the stuff, eventually someone will see it.
To give them hope, there's always the example of the St. Louis Cardinals' Todd Worrell, one of the National League's best relief pitchers, who graduated from Maranatha High (450 students) in Pasadena.
But more than hope, they'd like the look. And for that, they know they must continue posting ridiculous numbers.
"Sometimes I think we'll have to hit .900 before we have someone even give us a look," Van Dyke said.