1995 BASEBALL PREVIEW : Change in the Lineup : With Esperanza Gone, the Empire League Race Has a new Look

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1995 baseball preview begins on a sad note.

Esperanza is no longer in the Empire League. Coaches throughout the league don't know what to say.

"We're not playing for third-place anymore," Cypress Coach Mark Steinert said.

That's right, the Esperanza-El Dorado logjam is no more. Esperanza moves to the Sunset League, El Dorado remains king of the hill in the Empire League. Two of Southern California's top programs have been separated.

"It's going to be a strange year without them," Katella Coach Tim McMenamin said.

Yes, change is always hard to accept.

"We lost two of three to Esperanza most years," McMenamin said.

Well, maybe it's not so hard to accept.

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New frontier: Esperanza will have to make do slugging it out with Fountain Valley this season. Not a pleasant prospect.

The Barons were the first top-seeded team to win the Southern Section Division I championship since Lakewood in 1970. Fountain Valley returns six key players from the team that defeated Lakewood, 3-2, in the final.

The roll call: pitcher Chris Ponchak was 8-2, pitcher Luke Hudson was 8-1, outfielder Kevin Burford hit .301, outfielder Matt Roman threw out the potential tying run at the plate for the last out in the title game, shortstop Dan Keller was the rock of the infield and second baseman Craig Ritter did not make an error in 31 games.

Add reserves Jeff Hoppie (.375), Vic Ortega (.471) and Joe Rosek (.448).

And add Greg Hanoian (.427), who transferred from Edison.

No county team has won back-to-back Division I titles. But keep a spot clear in the Fountain Valley trophy case.

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A Top 10 primer: 1. Fountain Valley; 2. Mater Dei; 3. El Dorado; 4. Canyon; 5. Esperanza; 6. Trabuco Hills; 7. Katella; 8. Brea Olinda; 9. Sonora; 10. Westminster.

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Breaking up is hard to do: Other Empire League coaches may be a tad giddy, but for El Dorado Coach Steve Gullotti and Esperanza Coach Mike Curran, life will never be the same.

For years, they have had the most exciting, and usually friendliest, rivalry in Orange County. Now all they have is their friendship.

The two played against each other in high school--Curran at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul and Gullotti at Whittier Sierra High.

"They didn't have to use a bus when they played us," Curran said. "They'd just walk out the back gate to get to our school. That's how close the schools were."

Curran and Gullotti were teammates at Rio Hondo College. They became coaches in the Empire League the same year.

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America's most wanted: Canyon outfielder Eric Valent and Sunny Hills shortstop Josh Hochgesang are considered the county's top high school seniors, according to Baseball America.

Valent, a senior, is ranked 19th in the nation. He hit .426 with six home runs and 36 runs batted in. The Comanches have been to the Division II quarterfinals the last three seasons and could go further behind Valent, who has signed with UCLA.

Hochgesang, a senior, is ranked 24th by Baseball America and is the main reason the Lancers are co-favorites to win the Freeway League. He hit more than .400 last season.

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All that jazz: Valent spent the summer touring with the Junior Olympic team. The games were fun but . . .

"We had only one tape player and only one tape," Valent said.

Kenny G.

"I liked a couple of his songs when the tour started," Valent said. "But I hated all of it by the end of the summer."

You needed all summer to decide that?

Still, guess going to a store and buying another tape never occurred to them.

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Back to that Eldo-Espo thing: Curran and Gullotti's friendship has lasted, with one week off each year.

The Aztecs and Golden Hawks always had back-to-back games in recent seasons. It was the only week during the season their coaches did not talk.

"That may be an exaggeration," Gullotti said.

"Well, I don't know if that's true," Curran said.

Gentlemen, that tidbit came from your wives.

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Velcro glove: Tustin junior outfielder Rick Gonzalez catches anything he gets within sight of these days. But it wasn't always so.

"He was terrible as a freshman," Coach Tim O'Donoghue said. "If it wasn't a routine fly, he couldn't catch it. Even if it was a routine fly, he still might not catch it."

So imagine O'Donoghue's pleasant surprise during the Woodbridge game last season. Gonzalez, making a spot start, robbed one player of a home run by reaching over the fence. He later made a diving catch.

"It wasn't coaching," O'Donoghue said. "His dad hit fly balls to him every day. He worked hard. Still, the difference was mind-boggling."

But it was also a no-brainer. Despite a team loaded with seniors, O'Donoghue had Gonzalez in the starting lineup after the Woodbridge game. He hit .396 and did not make one error.

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Another stop: Does Vince Brown intend on coaching for every Tustin rival?

Brown, the Tillers' coach for seven seasons, was the Woodbridge head coach the last two seasons. This year, he is an assistant at Foothill.

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Numbers: The top returners in each category (based on The Times' final regular-season stats):

Batting--Calvary Chapel third baseman Joe Jones (.526).

Home runs--San Clemente outfielder/first baseman Robert Frith (eight).

RBIs--Jones (36).

Earned-run average--St. Margaret's Bobby Masters (0.93).

Victories--El Dorado's Don Jamieson (10).

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Eldo-Espo memories: OK, now that it's over, what's the lasting memory from the Esperanza-El Dorado feud?

Gullotti: "The most exciting one was in 1986. We were trailing, 1-0. Their pitcher retired the first two batters in the fifth. Our third batter strikes out, but the pitch goes to the backstop and our guy made it to first. Doug Sipple then hit a two-run homer. Scott Holcomb ended the game by striking out the side in the seventh. But I don't think that will be Mike's favorite game."

It's not.

Curran: "My favorite was in 1987. We were up, 2-0, in the seventh. They had a runner on first and no outs. Steve called for a hit-and-run. The runner goes and our second baseman Doug Saunders breaks for the bag. The batter hits a rocket toward center field. Doug is right there to catch it and double the guy at first. We get the last out and win. Doug would never had been there if they didn't hit-and-run. But that's baseball."

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How'd they do it? La Quinta has played in back-to-back Division III championship games, winning the title last season.

The Aztecs' secret? Not even their coach knows.

"Two title games and we don't have one kid who is playing in college right now," Dave Demarest said.

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Bring an umbrella: Demarest, who won his first section title in 21 years as the Aztecs' coach, had this to say:

"At this point in my career, I worry more about the weather than anything else."

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Thinking ahead: Brea Olinda Coach Steve Hiskey knew he was going to need another catcher, someday.

For two years, Mike Brambilla caught every inning for the Wildcats. He also hit .435 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs last season.

But he was going to graduate. There was nothing Hiskey could do about it. So he had a plan.

Little did John Stoddard know he was it.

Stoddard, who had not caught in his high school career, moves from the outfield to behind the plate this season. It was not a rash decision.

"Brambilla didn't show up to a summer league game two summers ago," Hiskey said. "We stuck John back there and he did pretty good. I knew then that he was our catcher for this season."

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A little left of center: Katella pitcher Jason Stockstill is the type of player McMenamin accepts and endures. He's left-handed.

"If we're working on pickoff throws to first, you can be sure Jason will throw one to second," McMenamin said. "He's a different breed. You never know with him."

Except when he's throwing to the plate. Stockstill, who was 6-4 last season, will be the Knights' ace.

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On the shelf: The season hadn't even started and there were already casualties.

--Fountain Valley's Keller is out two to three weeks after breaking a bone in his foot during basketball.

--Mater Dei shortstop Brad Ticehurst is out at least six weeks recovering from back surgery.

--La Quinta second baseman C.J. Livernois will play on a gimpy knee he injured in football.

--And the most frustrating injury--from one coach's point of view--Esperanza's Ryan Johnson has a broken finger on his pitching hand.

"He injured it in soccer," Curran said. "A sport where you don't use your hands and he breaks a finger."

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A Giver: Katella's Jaret Wright may be gone, but he hasn't been forgotten.

Wright, The Times Orange County's player of the year, was the Cleveland Indians' first pick when he graduated from Katella. Wright ended up signing for a $1.2-million bonus.

He dumped a little of that on the Katella program.

Wright participated in the baseball program's golf tournament and presented McMenamin with a $1,500 donation.

He also had the tournament's farthest drive, approximately 300 yards according to McMenamin.

It was one of the few balls he kept in the fairway, again according to McMenamin.

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A Giver, Part II: Bob Ickes, Mater Dei's coach, has been sharing the wealth this year. With loads of practice uniforms left over from previous seasons, he has distributed them to friends and friendly foes alike.

La Quinta, Irvine and Capistrano Valley received extra pants. Mission Viejo and San Clemente got some batting helmets.

"I was telling Bobby that we were struggling to get equipment and he said he had 50 to 60 pairs of pants," Demarest said. "Bobby's the greatest."

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Growing pains: Kennedy catcher Charlie Marino has come a long way from his goofy freshman days.

Marino, a senior, was called up to the varsity as a freshman for the Anaheim Lions' tournament. His performance got mixed reviews from Coach Chris Pascal.

"His first at-bat, he hammers a double," Pascal said. "Then he gets picked off before they throw another pitch."

Mistakes have been few and far between since.

"It's been nice to watch him grow," Pascal said.

Marino, a three-year starter at catcher, hit .397 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs last season.

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Waiting in the wings: The best winless pitcher to return this season?

It might be Brea Olinda junior Aaron Hough (0-0), son of former major league pitcher Charlie Hough. Aaron throws a wee-bit harder than his knuckleball-slinging dad, like somewhere in the mid-80s.

Still, he must wait his turn. Seniors Steve Trombley (10-1) and Bryan Robinson (8-3) figure to be the Wildcats' top two starters.

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More footstep following: El Dorado outfield Brandon Downing is the son of former Angel outfielder Brian Downing. Esperanza catcher Dave Parrish is the son of former Angel and Tiger catcher Lance Parrish.

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Ouch: Cypress' Bobby Brito was a freshman sensation and a sophomore target.

Brito, now a junior, hit .542 with 33 runs batted in as a freshman. It certainly made him a marked man. He was hit by pitches nine times last season.

Certainly all were accidents.

Brito also received 14 intentional walks and ended up hitting .349.

This season, he moves to catcher, his third position in as many seasons. He was a third baseman last season and an outfielder/designated hitter as a freshman.

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Final Eldo-Espo: So why no nonleague game? Why no doubleheader early in the season for old times sake.

Gullotti: "I don't know, ask Mike."

Curran: "We talked about it. But with all the tournaments, we have room for only one nonleague game. We play Canyon every year. It's kind of a traditional thing."

Take heart, maybe there's an El Dorado-Esperanza matchup in the future: the Division I championship game.

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