THEY'RE HOME-GROWN HEROES : El Segundo Goes for Second Consecutive 2-A Championship

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This story began 10 years ago in El Segundo, on a rough patch of grass behind the center-field fence of Recreation Park, where a bunch of kids from the west side of town used to play Wiffle Ball in the long shadows of summer afternoons.

It will end Saturday morning on the manicured turf of Anaheim Stadium, where the same boys--most of whom play baseball for El Segundo High--will take on San Marino for the Southern Section 2-A Division championship.

"It's almost incredible to see what they've become," said John Stevenson, El Segundo High's coach for 31 years.

Almost all of El Segundo's players--except for transfers Tate Seefried, Mark Lewis and Tony Bartolucci--are home-grown or products of the city's Little League.

Stevenson watched them all play from day one because his son Eric, El Segundo's second baseman, grew up with most of his teammates.

"I've coached high school all my years, so I'm used to seeing players come into school almost in finished form," Stevenson said.

"But I first saw all these kids back when they were still learning to catch a ball and hold a bat. When they'd get hit by a pitch for the first time, they'd cry."

In those early days, some of the kids already had the marks of excellence.

Garret Quaintance was a perpetual all-star who crushed Wiffle Balls as a 10 year old as well as he hits high school pitching today.

Others developed more slowly--like Jason Wayt, a 6-foot-4, left-handed pitcher who recently earned a baseball scholarship to Fresno State.

Eric Stevenson remembers Wayt as a "chubby little short kid" who used to have trouble getting down the first-base line in Little League.

"I remember everyone used to rag on Jason because he was so slow," Eric Stevenson said. "But now he's pretty much a stud."

Most of the boys still live within a three-block radius of each other. Rob Croxall, the team's ace pitcher, said their houses are all within a three-minute drive.

Or--back when they used other means of transportation--about a six-minute bike ride.

"This is such a small town, that we're almost like a fraternity," Croxall said. "Off the field, we're all buddies. We're really just a group of friends who play baseball together."

Quaintance, El Segundo's catcher, agreed.

"Almost everything we do revolves around all of us," he said.

Including, it seems, winning. Saturday, the Eagles (27-3) will have a chance to win the school's first back-to-back CIF titles since 1965-66.

"This team doesn't have a weak spot anywhere," said Stevenson, whose 659 career victories make him California's winningest prep baseball coach.

The heart of El Segundo's batting order is fearsome, anchored by Quaintance (.441, six home runs, 41 runs batted in), the team's cleanup hitter.

Seefried, whose 13 homers tie him for the Southern Section home run lead with Westlake's Mike Lieberthal and Fullerton's D. C. Olsen, bats ahead of Quaintance. Seefried leads El Segundo with a .473 average and a school-record 50 RBIs.

Lewis, who bats second behind third baseman Brett Newell, is hitting .437 with five home runs and 36 RBIs. He is also one of the best fielding shortstops in Southern California. Newell, who is Stevenson's godson, is batting .421 with 35 RBIs.

Coach Stevenson said the Eagles don't need to depend on any one player for offense.

El Segundo proved that point with come-from-behind victories over St. Bernard in the Camino Real League final and Santa Clara in the first round of the playoffs. Both times, the winning rallies were started by the bottom of the order.

Every El Segundo starter except Bartolucci (.292) is hitting above .300, including pitcher-first baseman Wayt (.426), Stevenson (.385), right fielder Kenny Talanoa (.349) and sophomore left fielder Jeff Poor (.354, five home runs).

That's the main reason the Eagles set Southern Section season records for runs (358) and hits (370). The old mark for runs was set by Montclair Prep with 343 in 1983, and the previous record for hits was 340 by Simi Valley in 1985.

El Segundo isn't all offense, however. The Eagles committed only 32 errors and their school-record 24 double plays is the sixth-highest total in Southern Section history.

Plus Coach Stevenson has the luxury of having three first-rate pitchers.

Croxall, a right-hander who threw a three-hitter Tuesday in a 7-1 victory over St. Anthony, had a streak of 31 scoreless innings snapped in the team's 2-A playoff opener. He is 10-1 with a 0.96 earned-run average.

Wayt is 8-1 with 53 strikeouts in 47.1 innings. Seefried, 7-1 with a 1.62 ERA, will start for El Segundo Saturday.

"Tate is basically a great athlete who is doing some pitching for us," Stevenson said. "He may never pitch another game in his life after Saturday."

Seefried will face a veteran San Marino lineup in a rematch of last year's 2-A final, won by El Segundo, 7-4, at Dodger Stadium.

The Titans (22-2-1) are led by right fielder Mark Ukropina (.474, five home runs, 41 RBIs) and third baseman Blair Slattery (.406). The speedy Alfonso Montoya plays center field.

San Marino Coach Mickey McNamee said he will probably start right-hander Dan Giddings (6-1) against El Segundo. Left-hander Michael Wan (11-0), who pitched a complete game against Yucaipa in San Marino's 2-1 victory Tuesday, will be available for relief.

McNamee said he was amazed that the two teams survived to meet in the final for the second consecutive year.

"Baseball has got to be the most difficult sport to make the finals in," McNamee said. "So many things can happen. Not only do you have to be good, you have to have a little luck riding along with you."

Despite San Marino's defeat last year, McNamee said revenge wouldn't be a motivating factor.

"El Segundo's players aren't the bad guys," said McNamee, who has coached at San Marino for 27 years. "I've known Coach Stevenson for many years and I've always respected his teams. Our No. 1 motivation was to play in the finals again."

El Segundo, which beat Millikan (a 5-A school) on a seventh-inning single by Wayt in the final of the Palos Verdes/Redondo tournament, probably has faced a tougher schedule this season than San Marino, but the Eagles might have some special motivation.

For the long-time teammates, Saturday will be the last time most of them will play together.

Still, Wayt said the friendships built over years of baseball and Wiffle Ball will never change.

"In El Segundo, you always stay the same, until you leave town," Wayt said. "You don't really notice the years going by because you're with the same friends all the time."

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