Jeff Leuenberger stood on the mound last year as one of the youngest members of the Orange County Dodgers, a youth baseball team made up mostly of high school juniors and seniors.
As Leuenberger, then a sophomore at Canyon High, threw blistering fastball after fastball in one of his first games, Orange County Dodger Coach Mickey Hartling became more and more impressed.
About the fourth inning, Hartling shouted to Leuenberger, “Are you OK?”
Leuenberger simply nodded.
Hartling thought maybe Leuenberger didn’t hear him, so he shouted again, “You’re OK, right?”
Leuenberger nodded again.
Hartling turned to assistant coach Mike Grahovac, who had recruited Leuenberger to the team.
“Hey, when you found him, did you know that he didn’t talk?” Hartling joked.
Some may laugh, but there’s power in that silence. Leuenberger’s home phone rings off the hook with calls from friends looking for a good listener. And on the mound, he doesn’t need to speak at all.
“I think he [sets his] focus as well as anybody I’ve seen,” Hartling said. “He doesn’t get lost in the game.”
Canyon (26-3) will set its hopes on Leuenberger (12-2) at 7:30 tonight in the Southern Section Division II championship against Upland (22-6) at Blair Field in Long Beach.
The game will be a grudge match for Leuenberger, who was the losing pitcher in a 4-2 loss to Upland last year in the first round.
Leuenberger, a junior who has played on the varsity since he was brought up for playoffs as a freshman, admits he is nervous.
“Yeah, a little,” he said. “I have always wanted to play in the finals.”
If Leuenberger’s career keeps on track, this probably won’t be his last big game.
“He throws so hard that if he gets into trouble, he just overpowers them. He has got such great velocity that he makes it tough on hitters.” Hartling said.
Leuenberger also is tough at second base--with runners on first and third in the fifth inning against Tustin in the semifinals Tuesday, Leuenberger fielded a bouncer, stepped on second and threw to first for an inning-ending double play. Canyon won, 9-1.
Leuenberger has attracted the attention of college recruiters from Miami, Georgia Tech and Arizona State, among others.
Whether he chooses to play in college or to sign a professional contract, Leuenberger’s parents will continue to be his No. 1 fans.
“We’d like him to stay near home so we can see him play but that’s his decision to make,” said Terri, his mother.
Terri, an office manager, recently arranged to work at home part time so she could attend Jeff’s baseball games. She said Jeff’s baseball talents might have descended from his great grandfather, Robert Cook, who as a youth was offered a professional contract but was turned it down because his mother wouldn’t sign a release form.
More likely, Leuenberger’s baseball skills are a result of hours of practice with his father, Mark, who coached Jeff from ages 5-14. Mark shares his son’s love for baseball, but he doesn’t share his son’s stoicism.
“I’m a nervous wreck all the time,” Mark said about Jeff’s appearance in tonight’s final.
Many depend on Leuenberger for his quiet confidence.
“Our house is always full of kids. He is very giving that way. He says, ‘Come on over, let’s talk,’ ” Terri said.
Leuenberger’s teammates have a similar appreciation of him, although they show it in a different way. At a tournament in Arizona last season, Leuenberger’s Orange County Dodger teammates trapped him in his hotel room and shaved his head.
“That was his acceptance,” Hartling said.
Leuenberger’s Comanche teammates are less demonstrative.
“We’re pretty laid back, our team. Before the games, we just talk and try to have fun and not really get nervous,” Leuenberger said. “We’re a mellow group. Everybody just seems to get along that way.”