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THE HIGH SCHOOLS / Brian Murphy : Montclair Prep, Village Christian Riding High on Eve of Baseball Clash

Two of the top-ranked baseball teams in the Southern Section 1-A Division happen to be in the same league, and they also happen to be playing Tuesday for first place.

They are Village Christian and Montclair Prep--Alpha League rivals with a tradition of big games against each other.

Last fall, the Crusader football team nearly upset Montclair Prep and heralded running backs Derek Sparks and Mike Jones, losing, 28-20, in a game that decided the league title. Last baseball season, two of second-place Village Christian’s three losses came at the hands of the league-champion Mounties.

The rivalry is not restricted to on-field competition, however. There’s also a lurking tradition of not exactly, shall we say, enjoying each other’s company.

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“Our kids really get up for Village Christian,” Montclair Prep Coach Walt Steele admitted. “We don’t like them, and they don’t like us.

“They’re an excellent 1-A team, though.”

Village Christian Coach Mike Henzie offered a diplomatic assessment of the rivalry.

Said Henzie: “Montclair Prep carries themselves a little differently than we do.”

Currently, Montclair Prep (15-2, 3-0), ranked No. 1 in the Southern Section 1-A poll, is carrying itself very proudly. The Mounties did a number on some larger schools last week, defeating Camarillo, Agoura and previously unbeaten El Camino Real and winning the Thousand Oaks tournament title. Such feats earned Montclair Prep the No. 10 spot in The Times’ regional Top Ten rankings; it is the smallest school to be ranked this season.

Earlier this year, Montclair Prep thumped the likes of Ventura and Taft.

“We’ve played with the big boys and beaten them,” Steele said.

Played with the big boys? Montclair Prep, with about 400 students, boasts some big names of its own.

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Keyaan Cook is a senior shortstop who clubbed two clutch home runs in the wins over El Camino Real and Agoura. Cook, a 5-foot-10, 215-pounder who is being heavily recruited by Division I schools, has three home runs this year and, before the tournament began, was batting .600.

And he doesn’t even lead the team in power.

Junior catcher Brent Polacheck has four home runs and is batting .562. Teammates J. T. Billingslea, Leland Sparks and Andy Shaw also are batting over .300.

Add rivalry: Village Christian and Montclair Prep will bring impressive credentials to The Master’s College, Village Christian’s home field, for their first meeting of the season. Village Christian, ranked No. 7 in the 1-A, is 12-1, 3-0 in league play. Henzie calls it “the best start I’ve ever had”; the team is batting a hefty .353. Village Christian is averaging 10 runs a game.

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Seven Crusaders are batting over .300, including Mark Vail (.400), Matt Bates (.409) and Jeff Cortez (.473).

Confidence is tempered with caution at the Sun Valley campus, though, as Henzie prepares his team for the showdown.

“We’re at the point where you think that nobody can beat you,” he said, “when you know darn well that any butcher can come in and cut you up.”

Parrot power: The Valley’s quietest 12-game win streak came to an end Tuesday when Poly lost the Holt-Goodman tournament final to Birmingham, 7-6.

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In Holt-Goodman play, Poly (14-3) beat Valley powers San Fernando and Kennedy to reach the final. In the semifinal with San Fernando, Poly overcame a five-run deficit in the final two innings and survived blowing a four-run lead in the seventh inning to win the game.

In the final, Poly mounted a four-run rally in the seventh inning and had the bases loaded before succumbing to Birmingham.

Though its players may not be the most celebrated in the Valley, Poly remains one of the deepest squads around and is a legitimate hopeful for a City 4-A title.

Younger players such as sophomore first baseman Francisco Flores and sophomore catcher Steve Chavez--both alumni of the 1989 Encino Pony League United States champion team--have blended with experienced hands such as senior second baseman Roy Lozano (.323), cleanup hitter and senior shortstop Gabe Chavez (12 runs batted in) and senior pitcher Eddie Castellanos (Valley-leading 8-0 record).

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Perhaps most significant of all is the club’s simple inability to accept defeat.

“We’re never dead in the water,” Poly Coach Jerry Cord said. “Our kids fight. We’re not gonna roll over for anybody. That’s our major asset--we just don’t lay down.”

The loss to Birmingham, in fact, was the team’s first since the first week of March and was met by sour, angry and bewildered looks among Poly players.

But Cord remains on an even keel.

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“It’s all right,” he said. “You gotta come back to Earth once in a while.”

Good hit, no field: While its record may not bowl you over, North Hollywood (5-7, 3-6 in conference) is showing improvement over last year’s 3-13 final record.

And there is talent: catcher Harry Marks (.416, four doubles) is being tabbed by some as one of the best catchers in the conference. Shortstop Erik Martinez (.483) is second among City Section batters in the Valley area.

But the gloves?

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North Hollywood has been undone more than once this season by faulty fielding, but never was it more apparent than in a 7-6 conference loss to Birmingham last week. After Marks clubbed a clutch three-run home run in the seventh inning to tie the score, North Hollywood committed three errors to allow the winning run to score in the bottom of the inning.

The Huskies finished with--ouch-- 11 errors.

What to do for a team averaging a bit more than five errors a game?

“I don’t know,” said Husky Coach Marty Biegel. “I just don’t know. I’ve hit more ground balls to these guys in practice than Phyllis Diller has wigs.”

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Now there’s a hairy thought.


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