Some baseball teams win with pitching. Others win with hitting. At La Quinta High School, the Aztecs’ success seems to boil down to a far different set of factors. Among them . . .
The presence of Snuffle-Upagous ?
Yes, Snuffle-Upagous--the Sesame Street character who’s brown and furry, with a long tail, sleepy eyes and an elephant-like trunk--was chosen team mascot at the start of the season. The Aztec players say the small, stuffed animal they refer to as “Snuffles,” is taped to the inside of the dugout before each game because it brings them luck. This might be; the Aztecs, coming off a third-place finish in last week’s Upper Deck tournament, are 12-3.
In that tournament, La Quinta beat Fountain Valley, 13-3, Thursday morning; lost to Esperanza, 6-2, Thursday afternoon, and defeated Tustin, 5-4, in nine innings Friday. Three games in 30 hours.
Of course, the Aztecs probably would have volunteered to play twice the games in half the time if it would have helped boost their image. As it is, most see La Quinta as a gutty little team with gutty little players.
Aztec Coach Dave Demarest is often accused of downplaying his team’s chances, but has anyone taken a look at his teams? Unlike the big, powerful lineups at Esperanza and El Dorado, La Quinta’s players actually look as if they’re young enough for high school. But they make up for it with scrappiness and intelligence.
In La Quinta’s history, only two players have gone on to play pro ball. Some teams have had more than that in a year. The only scout who has come close to La Quinta lately is the team’s left fielder, Derek Kato. He’s an Eagle scout.
So if La Quinta lacks size, strength and athleticism, why is it so good every year? Most would point to Demarest, who in 18 years has compiled a 319-126 record. Demarest, a modest fellow who has no paid assistants, denies the connection.
“I just don’t think coaches should get the credit,” he says.
OK, fine. Even though Demarest is one of the county’s finest coaches, we’ll oblige him and go on to other reasons for La Quinta’s success, the players:
--Walter Dawkins, a senior center fielder and the team’s best athlete. A running back in the fall, he says he’ll play baseball in college because he doesn’t like to get hit. Don’t think he’s scared of contact, though. He hit the ground pretty hard Friday when he made a spectacular diving catch.
Besides, he’s batting .534.
--Brett Osborn, a senior right-hander who is 5-1 with three saves. Demarest calls him the “best non-starting pitcher in Orange County.” Osborn says if he doesn’t play baseball in the future, he’ll probably be a horse trainer. His parents own two thoroughbreds.
--Scott Summerell, a senior first baseman. A bleeding ulcer kept him out much of last season, but now he’s back with a boom. Against Tustin on Friday, his backhanded, diving stop of a wild throw from third with two outs and the bases loaded was La Quinta’s saving play. Besides that, he likes to make up inspiring words--his latest is “Yama!"--to cheer on the team.
--Kato, a senior left fielder. With a 4.0 grade-point average and a desire to be a chemical engineer, he is the team’s brain. After learning he was a percentage point away from an A in calculus last semester, Kato wrote a report on the history of math to boost his grade.
--Kenny Granger, a sophomore catcher. He was a Little League pitching phenom a few years ago. Evidently, his arm is still strong. Friday he threw out Tustin’s top player, Shawn Green, who was trying to steal second.
--Chad Leckie, a junior third baseman. The son of a minister, he broke his right (throwing) wrist in December playing in his father’s church flag football league and couldn’t practice baseball until February.
Then there’s left fielder Donald Hopkins, the quarterback on the football team; shortstop Anthony Beltran; designated hitter Mike Berg, and pitchers John Miali, Steve Lemmons and Jim Livernois, a freshman who finished off Tustin by retiring six consecutive batters.
Sometimes, including the night before the Tustin game, the players get together for late-night poker. Other times, they like to create new superstitions--anything for better luck.
Before each game, for example, Dawkins takes off the necklace his girlfriend gave him, kisses it, sets it down, gets dressed, then (here’s the important part) kisses it again and puts it back on without looking at it. Hopkins has to eat a banana with milk before each game. Osborn has a particular dime for his pocket. Every player has at least one ritual.
Of course, the Aztecs know all their good-luck charms are useless without the presence of Snuffles, their designated critter.