Diamond Bar's Secret: Have Fun While No. 1 : Prep baseball: Players deflect the pressure of national ranking by enjoying their success.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kent Neil's toughest decision these days is which of his pitchers to start. One is 9-0 and one is 8-0, and both have earned-run averages that make opposing coaches shudder.

Neil also can call on a junior reliever who is 6-0 and already the target of college recruiters.

It has been that kind of a season for Neil and his Diamond Bar High baseball team.

Winners of 23 consecutive games, the Brahmas have generally been regarded as the top high school team in the Southland this season. They are top-ranked in The Times' Southern Section poll and entered the playoffs Friday as the top-seeded team in Division 5-A.

But Diamond Bar's winning reputation has grown. The Brahmas are ranked No. 1 in California by Cal-Hi Sports and No. 1 in the country by USA Today and Baseball America magazine.

By opening the playoffs with a 13-3 victory over Lawndale Leuzinger, the Brahmas (26-1) need only four more victories to claim the section title and a mythical national championship. They'll travel to Fountain Valley (16-12) Tuesday for a second-round game.

Although the school's coaches and players have tried to downplay the polls and media attention this season, most acknowledge that it is difficult not to get caught up in the hoopla.

"A lot of us look forward to picking up the newspapers each week and seeing if we're still on top," said Karl Thompson, a four-year starter at catcher. "All the press has been very exciting."

Neil, 80-31 in his four years at Diamond Bar, knew his team would be good before the season started because many key players returned. But even he was surprised when several preseason polls had the school at or near the top.

At a team breakfast to begin the season, Neil held up a copy of a USA Today that had the Brahmas ranked No. 2. He wanted his squad aware of the expectations.

"When he showed us that, our eyes kind of popped out," pitcher Jared Janke said.

But Diamond Bar has not disappointed. Its only loss was to Huntington Beach, 10-2, in the semifinals of the Loara tournament in March. Huntington Beach (22-3) went on to win the Sunset League and was seeded third in 5-A before losing to Cypress, 9-0, Friday.

The Brahmas are averaging nearly eight runs and giving up only three. They have had five shutouts, including a 20-0 victory over Covina Charter Oak.

The leader is Neil, 32, a soft-spoken coach who graduated from Redlands High in 1977. He played catcher at San Bernardino Valley College for two years and received a scholarship to U.S. International University in San Diego.

He was the baseball coach at Fountain Valley High for one year before taking over at Diamond Bar in 1989. He succeeded Denis Paul, who led the Brahmas to the 5-A title in his final season.

Neil's first season at the school was a rebuilding one, because most of the championship team graduated. The Brahmas had a 13-12 record, finished fourth in the Sierra League and missed the playoffs.

It was a different story in 1990, however. Neil started four sophomores and the team advanced to the 5-A final before losing to Marina.

Diamond Bar was 20-9 last season, losing to Edison, 4-3, in the 5-A semifinals when it gave up four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

There was little doubt about this year's team. The four players Neil started as sophomores--Janke, Thompson, shortstop Isaac Garcia and second baseman David Mallas--are still on the team.

Janke, a right-hander, is 9-0 and had a 0.36 ERA and 57 strikeouts heading into the playoffs. He has signed with UC Santa Barbara.

Left-hander Mike Corominas is 8-0 with a 2.71 ERA and 36 strikeouts. He signed with Arizona State.

Reliever John Heaton, a junior, is 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA.

Thompson, the team captain who signed with Santa Clara, leads the San Gabriel Valley with 31 runs scored and 34 runs-batted in.

The Brahmas' starting lineup is batting better than .300, further establishing a balanced team.

"We certainly do a lot of things well," Neil said, "but the real key this season is that we have 17 kids who like each other and want to go out every game and help each other win.

"Winning as a team has been the reward for them."

Said Thompson: "This team does everything together. We hang out at school together, we eat together and we play baseball together. And we enjoy every moment of it."

The most enjoyable moments this season have been two 4-3 victories over Sierra League rival La Puente Nogales. The most recent came last week, with the league title on the line. Diamond Bar took nine innings to win its first title under Neil.

"Diamond Bar baseball has been an obstacle in our way to the championship for some time," Nogales Coach John Romano said. "This season is no different. That is the most competitive team I've ever coached against."

While an early exit from the playoffs would dampen an otherwise memorable season, Neil knows this one will be hard to forget.

"A team like this comes around once in a career," he said. "I will remember a lot more than just what happened in our last game."

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