SOUTHERN SECTION 1-A DIVISION BASEBALL : Village Christian Loose for Mountie Rematch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crusader ears were still ringing May 4 when Village Christian High baseball Coach Mike Henzie crossed the diamond to shake hands with his Montclair Prep counterpart, Walt Steele.

Montclair Prep's potent bats had just pounded out 16 hits in a 14-5 thumping of Village Christian, which had lost four of its last five. It was Montclair Prep's second win over its Alpha League rival--the Mounties prevailed earlier, 16-11--and left little doubt about which was the dominant team.

But Henzie was not yet convinced.

"I told Walt after that game, 'You know, I'd really like for us to play you one more time,' " Henzie said. "He said, 'It'll have to be in the (Southern Section 1-A Division) finals.'

"And I said, 'So be it.' "

And so it will be.

Tonight at 7:30 at Blair Field in Long Beach, Village Christian (18-6) will conclude an improbable playoff run by meeting top-seeded Montclair Prep for the third and--no pun intended-- final time.

"The way I look at it," Steele said, "we're running into a hot buzz saw."

Sure, Montclair Prep enters as the No. 1 team in the Southern Section 1-A Division. And, yes, the Mounties' 24-3 record is imposing. But tonight Montclair Prep will meet a Village Christian team that has the carefree attitude of a team with little at stake.

"Montclair Prep is an excellent, excellent ballclub," Henzie said. "But they've got all the pressure. We don't have anything to lose."

Village Christian, after all, entered the playoffs as a wild-card team and took its 14-6 record to Moorpark.

Little chance was given to a team that, after compiling a 12-1 record out of the gate, lost five of its last seven. But before the playoffs, Henzie called a team meeting in which he spelled out some basic truths to his squad.

"Basically, what we all agreed on was that we're not this bad," Henzie said. "I said to the guys, sometimes you have to go through tough situations to prepare for tougher situations. And maybe those tough times were what we needed to prepare for the playoffs."

Unencumbered by expectations, Village Christian attacked playoff pitching.

Eighteen hits in a wild-card win over Moorpark, 16 in a first-round victory over Templeton, nine in a quarterfinal triumph over Kern Valley and 16 in a semifinal win over Fillmore clinched a trip to Long Beach.

The team is batting .457 in the playoffs. Leading the way are Matt Henzie (nine for 15, two home runs, nine runs batted in), left-hander Matt Bates (eight for 13, three RBIs, two wins), Matt Smay (eight for 17, five RBIs) and right-hander Mark Vail (two wins).

For all of this, though, Montclair Prep remains the favorite. Senior right-hander Kevin Grant (11-1) has one of the best arms in the 1-A playoffs. Shortstop Keyaan Cook, a Division I prospect, batted .550 and drove in 33 runs. Cleanup hitter Brent Polacheck drove in 39 regular-season runs while batting .461.

And Steele has at his disposal his top two relievers, freshman Chris Ferebee and senior Scott Saklad, who are rested because of sophomore Russell Ortiz's complete-game victory over Paraclete on Tuesday.

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