Dan Melendez says it was inevitable that the United States and Cuba met Sunday in the championship game of the World Junior Baseball tournament in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.
"That's what everybody wanted to see, us against Cuba," said the recent St. Bernard High graduate. "The Cubans are crazy. They curse at the umpires in Spanish and try to intimidate everybody else."
Although not as colorful as their opponents, the young Americans proved better prepared for the big game. They scored an 11-3 victory, as Melendez collected three hits in six at-bats and drove in four runs.
"We were so pumped up, we just took it to them right away," said the first baseman, who was chosen most valuable player of the tournament that featured junior national teams from 12 countries.
Melendez hit .500 (12 for 24) with six doubles in seven games but was surprised when he was named MVP.
"It was one of my biggest thrills," he said.
Melendez had more than his share of thrills last spring when he led St. Bernard to a 20-6 record and the quarterfinals of the Southern Section 2-A playoffs. The 6-foot-4 left-hander posted an 11-3 pitching record, hit .527 and ended his prep career with 14 school records. He was named 2-A Player of the Year and The Times South Bay Player of the Year.
The junior national team, composed of players ages 16-18, was selected from the rosters of the four regional teams at the U.S. Olympic Festival. Melendez, who was plucked from the West team, was one of 22 players originally selected. That number was reduced to 18 a week before the World Junior tournament began Aug. 10.
Melendez said he didn't hit well during the U.S. team's week of practice in Iowa.
"I was disappointed after Iowa," he said. "But in the first game (the coaches) had me batting third, so they still had confidence in me."
Melendez didn't let his team down. He went 2 for 2 with a double off the wall against Holland, setting the stage for an impressive tournament.
The Pepperdine recruit was one of five Southern Californians on the junior national team. The others were infielder Jason Evans and pitcher Derek Wallace of Chatsworth, catcher Greg Zaun of La Canada St. Francis and outfielder Chris Sheff of Laguna Hills. Sheff, who will join Melendez at Pepperdine, was named to the all-tournament team.
It marked the second consecutive year that the U.S. defeated Cuba for the title after Cuba had won four in a row from 1984 to 1987.
Standout running back Earl Rhodes, who said last week that he was leaning toward transferring to South Pasadena High, said Tuesday he will return for his senior year at Coast Christian.
Rhodes, twice named the Southern Section eight-man Small Division MVP, said his family persuaded him to return to Coast Christian.
"That's where positive things happened for me, so (my family) was all for it," he said.
The 6-2, 205-pound player said he will make the daily drive from his home in Pasadena to Coast Christian, located on Inglewood Avenue in North Redondo Beach. Coach Dan Pride, now coaching at Webb in Claremont, had driven Rhodes to school for three years.
Rhodes said he hopes to start practicing with Coast Christian next week.
Defending L.A. City 4-A champion Carson is again expected to be one of the Southland's top football teams, but Coach Gene Vollnogle is concerned about the Colts' inexperienced offensive line.
Guard Newly Young, a 6-foot, 225-pound senior and the only returning starter on the offensive line, is academically ineligible and most likely will not play this season.
"We expected him to be the mainstay of that line to build on," Vollnogle said. "But he didn't make it."
All-City fullback Derek Sparks, who transferred from Banning to Montclair Prep after last season, has been joined by his cousin at the Van Nuys school.
Leland Sparks, a junior who played with Derek in ninth grade at Wharton High in Texas, will start at quarterback for Montclair Prep after transferring last spring. He'll be joined in the backfield by Derek, a junior fullback, and Michael Jones, a 6-2, 210-pound senior tailback who has turned up on several preseason All-American lists.
Is it any wonder that Montclair Prep is ranked No. 1 in the CIF-Southern Section Division IX preseason poll?
PREP NOTES--Carson linebacker Nkosi Littleton was the only South Bay football player named to Super Prep magazine's preseason All-American team. Littleton, a 6-2, 210-pound senior who was an All-City defensive end last year, was rated the No. 18 linebacker prospect in the country by Super Prep. Carson wide receiver Michael Ross was named to the magazine's All-Far West team . . . Armando Fernandez, the hitting star of Hawthorne's baseball team last season as a sophomore, is expected to start at fullback for the Cougars' football team. The 6-foot, 200-pound junior was named to The Times All-South Bay baseball team last spring after hitting .413 with five home runs and 24 RBIs . . . Brett Newell, a junior and the son of Coach Steve Newell, will start at quarterback for El Segundo's football team. One of the Eagles' top running backs will be Garret Quaintance, an All-CIF catcher for El Segundo's Southern Section 2-A champion baseball team . . . Antone Williamson, All-CIF third baseman and a member of The Times All-South Bay baseball team last year as a sophomore, is battling for the starting quarterback job at Torrance.