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A View From the Top : Prep baseball: Westlake emerges from last year’s debacle and ascends to a lofty 25-1

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A steep 80-foot dirt embankment at the base of the right-field fence at Westlake High gives opponents fits. A fielder is allowed to climb the hill to catch a fly ball, and Westlake outfielders hold an advantage because they do it in practice.

“The secret is not to look down,” said Matt McHendry, a Westlake right fielder. “Never look down.”

The team is heeding that advice as it enters the playoffs Friday precariously perched on the top rung of the Southern Section ladder.

Westlake (25-1), which plays host to Mira Costa (13-13), is seeded No. 1 in the 5-A Division and is ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today. The players insist that congratulations, however well-deserved, remain premature.

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“Forget 25-1, forget our rankings, it’s a new season,” catcher Mike Lieberthal said.

An admirable--and perhaps necessary--approach to the playoffs. But forget this season? No way. Study it as a blueprint for what every high school team strives to become. Surely, when their season does end, Lieberthal and his teammates will savor the memories for a lifetime.

The Warriors opened the season by winning the El Segundo tournament, defeating highly regarded Millikan, Edison and Culver City in the final three games. Then they blew through the Marmonte League with a 12-0 record en route to Westlake’s first league title.

The only loss came in the first round of a spring-break tournament in Las Vegas, the morning after the trip from Westlake Village turned into a 10-hour ordeal when the team bus broke down.

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Since the loss, Westlake has won 10 in a row, prompting ovations at student rallies, a large and vocal following at games and a pervasive feeling of invincibility among the players.

Said pitcher Mike Eby: “It’s been a fun year, a great year.”

And a major surprise. Last season under first-year walk-on Coach Rich Herrera, Westlake fumbled its way to an 11-13 record, making 42 errors. Under Rich’s brother, Larry, the junior varsity was 8-13.

A year later, the names are the same. No star player transferred to Westlake. Rich, 26, is still the walk-on coach; Larry, 25, is the third-base coach.

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How did Westlake transform from a below-average team into a national power? The changes were subtle, yet substantial.

Lieberthal, one of the best high school players in the nation, moved from shortstop to catcher, enabling Tim Falsken to move from second base to shortstop and Rick Wolters to move from backup catcher to second base. Each player has flourished at his new position, and they combine with fleet center fielder Rob Neal to give the team exceptional defense up the middle.

Eby (9-0, 1.37 earned-run average) learned a changeup that has become his best pitch, making him a cut above the typical two-pitch high school hurler.

Herrera developed a softer touch with the players. “Last year they were tight because I put pressure on them,” he said. “This year, I’m more easygoing. They know me, I know them.”

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Above all, the amazing turnaround is a testimony to friendship and flexibility in a program notorious for producing players whose opinions of themselves soared higher than the hill in right field.

Herrera is Westlake’s sixth coach since the program began in 1978. The first five were vilified by overbearing parents and underachieving players who had in common only uncommon selfishness. The team was 40-115-5 through 1985 and did not make the playoffs until 1987.

Last season was more of the same.

“Guys were saying, ‘I hope this guy doesn’t do well so I can get in,’ ” Falsken said.

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Now, anyone wishing to toot his own horn had better join the school band. There is no room in the dugout for inflated egos.

“Last year everyone just played for themselves,” Lieberthal said. “This year, everyone has pulled together. Team unity is the main reason we’ve been so strong.”

Players lavish praise on one another. Lieberthal, rated the No. 3 high school player in the nation by Baseball America magazine, would as soon discuss teammates as himself, using the tone of a proud brother. “Watch us take pregame. Every guy has arm strength,” he said.

Credit Herrera with recognizing that a kinder, gentler approach would increase harmony. He had impressive credentials as an assistant on two conference-champion Oxnard College teams and as an assistant on two Rio Mesa High Southern Section champions. Yet he admits to having been self-conscious about his youth last season.

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“I told the kids the first day of class, this is the way it’s going to be,” he said. “It was a tough year. I felt like I had to come in and command respect.”

The respect has been earned rather than demanded.

“Last year Coach Herrera tried to put his foot down,” left fielder Sean Howard said. “This year, he knows each player and everyone is more comfortable.”

Herrera is able to admit to a mistake and take a suggestion--even from players. Falsken proposed an alternative to the double-steal defense Herrera had implemented. “It made sense, so now we do it his way,” Herrera said.

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The coach’s youth seems like an advantage now. “He cares what we do off the field. He’s like a part of us,” Howard said, noting that Herrera recently took photos of players and their dates before a prom.

In the evenings, players might gather at Lieberthal’s back-yard batting cage or relax at Falsken’s house. Whatever they do, it’s together.

“We go out on weekends and after games. We have fun together,” said Neal, the center fielder. “There isn’t one guy on this team I don’t like.”

Winning, of course, serves as excellent bonding for friendships. It’s difficult to dislike a teammate who drives you home every time you reach base.

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For Westlake, victory has become inevitable, as if a game cannot end until the Warriors have the lead. “In the late innings, you can feel it in the dugout,” Eby said. “We just know we’re going to pull it out some way or another.”

The feeling was spawned during an 8-7 comeback win over Millikan in the El Segundo tournament the second game of the season. Westlake trailed, 7-2, in the third inning but pulled to within 7-5 on a three-run home run by designated-hitter Keith Hess and won on a three-run home run by Lieberthal.

“After coming back against Millikan and beating Culver City in the final, we knew we could go all the way,” outfielder Keenan McAluney said.

Five league victories were decided by one run, including two in extra innings. Westlake marked its league opener with a five-run, seventh-inning rally that overcame a 4-2 deficit. The next game, at Royal, was won in the ninth on a run-scoring double by Lieberthal.

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The heroics continued. Neal singled home Falsken in the seventh to beat Newbury Park, 2-1. Eby pitched a one-hitter to beat Channel Islands, 1-0. Third baseman Todd Preston singled home the winning run in the seventh to defeat Thousand Oaks, 4-3. Lieberthal singled home Wolters in the eighth inning of a 4-3 win over Newbury Park.

“Once we learned we could win the close ones, we’ve fallen into a cycle,” said Falsken, who has scored 36 runs and is batting .389. “We’ll have big innings in the first or second, do nothing in the third through fifth, then turn it on.”

The team motto, “A Hard Seven,” underscores the desire to play well in the late innings. “Last year we only played a hard three or four innings,” Herrera said.

Although Westlake can be explosive, the bulk of the offense has been carried by the lineup’s top four hitters--Neal, Falsken, Lieberthal and Hess--who have scored 110 runs and driven in 95 of the team’s 184 runs. Besides those four, only Eby and utility player James Jones are batting above .300.

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“Our defense has to get the credit,” said Herrera, noting in particular Lieberthal’s arm, Neal’s range and the play of the infield. “We don’t beat ourselves.”

Because none of the pitchers are overpowering, defensive lapses would be devastating.

“We make the routine plays, we have all year,” said an appreciative Eby, whose excellent changeup upsets the timing of hitters and induces them to put the ball in play with less than their best swing.

Herrera, who pitched at Rio Mesa High and Oxnard College before becoming an assistant coach at those schools, convinced Eby that mixing in some change would make him a money pitcher.

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“High school hitters are taught how to hit the fastball and curve,” Herrera said. “If you can throw a changeup for strikes, you’ll win.”

Eby pulls the string and leaves hitters hanging. “I make them get themselves out rather than having to get them out.”

Also flustering hitters are James Clark (6-0), Scott Lerner (4-0) and Donnie Hill (2-1). Clark, a junior left-hander, has been especially effective, fashioning a 1.17 ERA despite striking out only 17 in 36 innings.

Falsken (4-0, 0.41 ERA) was a strong closer early in the season but he hasn’t pitched in five weeks because of a tender shoulder. That type of misfortune could have provided a ready excuse for late-inning losses.

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Westlake, however, has had no need for alibis.

‘Twas the night before the playoffs and all through Westlake Village . . .

Players wore only their stirrups to bed?

“We have a lot of superstitions, that’s one of them,” Wolters said.

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Herrera cannot discourage such behavior, not when he plays the same song on his car stereo driving to the field every game day. “Even if I have to rewind it three times,” he said.

And not when Larry Herrera has that same penny in his pocket, the one he found while coaching third base when the team trailed Millikan, 7-2.

Superstition is a way of handling anxiety. And winning can cause more stress than losing as long as expectations remain unmet.

Westlake opened with 15 wins, stumbled once, and won 10 more. The playoffs are five games long if a team continues to win, and going all the way would give the season a nice symmetry.

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“The first thing the coaches said this year was mark June 2 on your calendars, that’s the day of the finals,” Neal said.

Hence the Warriors’ reluctance to reflect on their accomplishments just yet. They are reminded every time they look toward right field: Never look down.


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