Seth Etherton stepped off the mound after a few shaky pitches, his confidence wavering. But when he glanced at the players around him, he stepped back on the mound, re-energized.
Etherton, a hard-throwing right-hander and graduate of Dana Hills High, was pitching for the Orange County Cardinals in the Connie Mack Pacific Regional championship game at Cherry Creek, Colo. Although he didn't have his best stuff, that wasn't imperative with this bunch.
Not with Brett Nista, a Laguna Hills graduate, at shortstop, Derek Baker (Tustin) at third and Pete Zamora (Capistrano Valley) ready if Etherton faltered. And those guys are only part of the Cardinals' stacked lineup, which has much of the county's best baseball talent.
A 9-4 victory in the title game Aug. 8 showed how good the team is. The victory capped the overpowering Cardinals' performance in the tournament, which left Etherton feeling like a fan at times.
"This is the best team I've played on," Etherton said. "It's real comfortable going out there and knowing you're going to get a lot of runs. Looking around out there, it just makes you feel good."
The Cardinals might be champions if they can maintain Etherton's good vibes for another week. The team is playing in the Connie Mack World Series at Farmington, N.M.
The Cardinals opened the tournament Saturday with a 12-2 victory over Detroit. They play host to Farmington on Monday.
The double-elimination tournament concludes with the title game Friday. Though bringing home the World Series trophy is no lock, many of the Cardinals said the experience has been even better than they hoped.
Zamora heads the list of happy Cardinals.
"This has been one of the most fun summers of my life," said Zamora, a left-handed pitcher. "Hanging out with the guys in hotel rooms, playing cards and getting to know everyone. And our team is so good."
The Cardinals (30-5) encountered minor opposition during the regional playoffs. The team outscored the competition, 45-17, in four games, and scored at least 10 runs in every game but the regional final.
Scoring runs in bunches and allowing few is obviously a successful formula, and that's what the team has been doing since its season began June 5.
"I've never seen a (youth) team with this type of offense and pitching," said Nista, who has the county's all-time prep records for hits (155) and runs scored (128). "The hitters don't worry about the pitching and the pitchers don't worry about the hitting."
Said Baker: "I had a good time (playing for a team) last year at the Olympic Festival, but this year has been a lot of fun."
Randy Vanderhook coaches the team with Dave Demarest as his assistant. The roles are reversed during the prep baseball season at La Quinta High.
Vanderhook is in his 15th season coaching at the Connie Mack level, which is for players 18 and younger. This is the eighth Cardinal team he has guided to the World Series. He believes this group has an excellent chance to be the first to win the title.
"This is probably the best team we've had," Vanderhook said. "In terms of depth, this is definitely the best. Everybody can play."
Demarest, too, is impressed.
"This has been an outstanding group," said Demarest, who led La Quinta to the 1994 Southern Section Division III title. "On and off the field, they've been great."
Eight of the team's 18 players have received Division I baseball scholarships, Demarest said. The figure would have been nine of 19 had former Katella pitcher Jaret Wright--The Times Orange County player of the year--stayed with the Cardinals and accepted a scholarship to either BYU or UCLA. Instead, he signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1.2 million and left for the minor leagues.
Nista and Zamora will play at UCLA, and Baker and Etherton are going to USC. All four were drafted.
Although they were friends before joining the Cardinals, the players have learned more about each other this summer.
"I've known Derek for about a year now, but spending the summer on the same team helps us get more comfortable as teammates and friends," said Etherton, who will room with Baker at USC.
UCLA baseball Coach Gary Adams said this experience should help.
"The more games they can play the better," Adams said. "I have a lot of respect for Dave (Demarest), and any coaching they can get from Dave will make them better players."
His USC counterpart agrees.
"The more innings they can get and the more at-bats they can get is nothing but good for them," said Mike Gillespie, the Trojans' coach. "They're playing among a lot of good players and against good players."
OK. But what about the impending rivalry between the soon-to-be Bruins and Trojans? Has their fraternization this summer blurred their future focus?
"It's kind of weird we're playing together now and are going to be big rivals next year," Nista said. "We all get along so good, but maybe that will help to make the rivalry better.
"It'll be one of those friendly rivalries where we play the game and (go out) afterward."