Aztecs' Diverse Bunch in NCAA Play Today

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We were thinking of introducing these college guys by their majors, but then their coach said some of them needed about 220 volts between their ears.

He laughed after he said it, but let's forget about majors.

So then we started talking with a few members of the San Diego State baseball team. We heard about "Boucher Hits" and love songs and Bugs Bunny. And we also heard about hitting and pitching and defense and winning on alien fields, of all places.

The Aztecs (46-20) will be on an alien field when they open NCAA West I Regional play this morning at 9 against Middle Tennessee State (42-13). They have won 13 in a row, which led to the Western Athletic Conference regular season and playoff championships. They are making the school's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1986.

Who are these guys?

Out there at first base is Darin McGhee. His father caught for SDSU in 1963 and 1964. McGhee started the season as a shortstop and third baseman but became the regular first baseman when the team was playing at Nevada Reno in mid-April. Good move. Coach Jim Dietz said that last weekend in the WAC tournament, McGhee made some of the more spectacular defensive plays he has seen.

At second is Scott Dennison, who treats his glove like a girlfriend. He is always babying it, softening it with mink oil and shaping it. Dennison played high school ball at Valhalla and two more years at Grossmont College. He leads SDSU in batting at .364.

The other half of the double play combination is Brian Grebeck. He is tight with his brother, Craig, who happens to be a rookie infielder with the Chicago White Sox. Teammates read the box scores each morning, then go find Brian. "See your brother went oh-fer today," they say. Nice guys. Grebeck leads SDSU with nine home runs and is second with 53 runs-batted in.

The guy rolling around in the dirt at third is Steve Boucher, who played with McGhee at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif., for the past two seasons. Boucher is having quite a year, batting .345, but that doesn't matter to his roommate, catcher Eric Christopherson.

"Oh man, he's not exactly the cleanest guy in the world," Christopherson says. "He gets out of the shower, and he's still dirty. He doesn't care either. That's the best thing about it." He even has a category of hits named for him. A "Boucher Hit" is a soft flare or a weak grounder that finds its way through the infield. You get the idea.

Anthony Johnson starts in left. He's a senior, batting .337. He's also the team trend-setter. When he comes up with a saying, it usually sticks. Gary Kondratek, the pitching coach, said the team has adopted a theme song lobbied for by Johnson. Problem was, Kondratek couldn't remember exactly what it is. (For the record, it's "Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer.) Don't worry, be happy.

One of the best athletes on the team starts in either center or right, a guy named Jeff Barry. He's into his own kind of music. Teammates will see him with his radio and ask what music he's listening to. "Nothin' but love songs," he croons. Honest. Barry, a senior, leads the team with 55 RBIs and is second with eight home runs.

The other guy, in either center or right, is Bill Dunckel. Poor guy. Got picked off base three times during that Reno series--twice at second and once at first--and never heard the end of it. He's fourth on the team with 38 RBIs, but they still won't leave him alone.

OK, designated hitters. Brad Gennaro, Mike MacKinnon, Rick Page and Derek Vinyard share this duty. Gennaro and Vinyard are freshman. MacKinnon lost the first base job to McGhee. As for Page, a backup catcher, Kondratek says, "My hat is off to the two and three catchers. They always get to be the bullpen catcher, the crummy jobs."

Why? Two words: Eric Christopherson. He's the guy who scouts say will be a first-round pick in next month's major league draft. He's the guy who scares opposing baserunners into not trying to steal. He is second on the team with a .349 average and third with 46 RBIs.

Kurt Archer will be the starting pitcher this morning. He's a newcomer, having spent the past two years at two different community colleges. He's a right-hander who went 7-2 with a 2.23 ERA this season. Dietz likes him because his arm recovers more quickly than the others on the staff. The players like him because he reminds them of an extra in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Left-hander Erik Plantenberg (10-4, 2.77 ERA), right-hander Andy Peterson 9-2, 2.78 ERA) and left-hander Rick Navarro (9-3, 2.61) will round out the starting staff during the tournament.

According to the SDSU media guide, one of Plantenberg's hobbies is pottery. Peterson has been the surprise of the staff. He pitched in just three varsity games last year but threw all 11 innings of a 5-4 victory over Brigham Young Saturday in the WAC tournament championship game. Navarro has successfully come back from a hyper-extended left elbow suffered earlier in the year. At least nothing happened to his hair, which is never out of place. He's the kind of guy who only wears a hat when necessary.

Nutty guys, these Aztecs.

Who are they?

Maybe Christopherson put it best: "We're just a bunch of guys who came together and didn't really know each other, got to know each other pretty well and worked hard to get to a certain point. Now, we're working to get beyond that point."

Starting this morning.

Aztec Notes

The starting pitcher for Middle Tennessee State this morning will be junior left-hander Chris Crabtree. He is 10-1 with a 2.95 earned-run average, but perhaps his most noteworthy numbers are his vital statistics: 5-feet-9, 180 pounds. "He changes speeds very well and moves the ball around," Middle Tennessee State Coach Steve Peterson said. "He's not overpowering--he throws in the low 80s." . . . Peterson said this is the best defensive team the school has had. The Blue Raiders are also powerful--they hit 70 home runs to their opponents' 31. Catcher Jay Owens is their leading hitter both in terms of power (17 home runs) and average (.324). . . . Middle Tennessee State (42-13) set a school record this season for victories. This is its third NCAA tournament appearance in four years. The Blue Raiders lost their first two games in the 1987 South I Regional at Huntsville, Ala., and lost two of three in the 1988 South Regional at Starkville, Miss. SDSU last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1986, so no current Aztecs have tournament experience. . . . Host Stanford is ranked No. 1 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball. The Cardinal won the NCAA championship in both 1987 and 1988. SDSU is No. 20. Other ranked teams in this regional are Southern Illinois (11) and Fresno State (24). . . . The worst record in this regional belongs to the Campbell (N.C.) Fighting Camels, who won the Big South tournament. They open with Stanford today. "We're happy to be here," Campbell Coach Mike Caldwell said. "Stanford will beat us 19 out of 20 times, but we flew 3,000 miles to see if we can get that one."

NCAA WEST I REGIONAL TODAY'S GAMES 9 a.m--San Diego State (46-20) vs. Middle Tennessee State (42-13)

12:30 p.m.--Southern Illinois (47-12) vs. Fresno State (37-22)

4 p.m.--Stanford (52-10) vs. Campbell, N.C., (15-31)

FRIDAY'S GAMES 9 a.m.--Stanford-Campbell loser vs. Southern Illinois-Fresno State loser

12:30 p.m.--Stanford-Campbell winner vs. SDSU-Middle Tennessee State loser

4 p.m.--Southern Illinois-Fresno State winner vs. SDSU-Middle Tennessee State winner

SATURDAY'S GAMES To be announced

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