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ANSWER MEN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So goes the mantra in the Cal State Northridge baseball dugout: “Answer back. Answer back. Answer back.”

Coach Mike Batesole used to say it to exhort his team to score immediately after the opposition had put a run on the board. But a school-record 16-game winning streak and a national ranking mere months after Northridge temporarily dropped the program sends a broader message.

To the administrators who eliminated baseball in June and reinstated it in August, only because the state provided emergency money. Answer back.

To the former Matador players who dropped by to watch fall workouts and left shaking their heads, predicting the team wouldn’t win 10 games. Answer back.

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To the college programs that turned away every one of the 23 players on the Northridge roster and now are losing to them. Answer back.

“The kids on this team deserve credit,” Batesole said. “Nobody I’ve been around

has gone through what they’ve gone through, and they’ve turned this into something great.”

They are rejects who found redemption in reviving a moribund program, and they relish the image. Northridge, 28-17 and ranked 29th in the nation by Collegiate Baseball magazine, is enjoying a magic season. Among their victories are a two-game sweep of UCLA and triumphs over top-20 teams Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and South Alabama.

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“It’s like a cloud we’re on,” second baseman Nakia Hill said. “To be around guys who came from nowhere and accomplish all this is storybook.”

Hill’s saga is typical. The junior’s scholarship was pulled at Fullerton. He enrolled at Northridge days before the fall semester began, and is batting .394 with 12 home runs.

Shortstop Marco Estrada, who is batting .285, and starting pitcher Tim Baron, who has a 3-3 record, also were cut by Fullerton. Outfielder Darren Dyt, disgruntled at Fresno State, has nine home runs and major league scouts say he will be drafted in June.

Junior college transfers Kevin Patrick, a third baseman batting .363, and pitchers Jose Vasquez (7-4) and Jeff Martin (6-2) weren’t recruited by anyone and came to Northridge as a last resort.

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Freshman outfielder Eric Horvat, batting .278, is the only one of seven recruits who stuck it out after signing a letter of intent with Northridge before June.

Center fielder Mike McNeely (.319) and ace left-hander Carey Novits (4-2) were Northridge reserves last season who weren’t in Batesole’s plans until he had to scrap for players in August.

The only other returners--catcher Jeremy Sickles, first baseman Adrian Mendoza and outfielder Chris MacMillan--didn’t attract any scholarship offers when the sport was temporarily cut last summer. They have combined for 24 homers and 104 runs batted in.

“We’ve all been knocked down,” Novits said. “We are all outcasts. Maybe that’s why we get along so well. There are no prima donnas. Everybody has had to work for every bit of respect they’ve gotten.”

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Northridge has taken repeated hits since Batesole led the team to a 52-18 record, the Western Athletic Conference championship and the West Regional final in 1996, his first season.

The WAC reorganized in 1997 and dumped Northridge. Overtures to the Big West Conference were rebuffed, leaving no choice but to play without conference affiliation.

The Matadors went 42-20 last season and produced an All-American first-round draft pick in shortstop Adam Kennedy. Despite their independent status, and playing on a home field Baseball America magazine rated the worst in Division I, the Matadors were beating the odds.

All of that changed in June. Citing budget and gender equity concerns, Northridge eliminated baseball and three other men’s sports--soccer, volleyball and swimming.

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Established players scrambled to find new schools. Northridge recruits were scooped up by rival programs.

Outraged over the cuts, Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) found $586,000 in state education funds and the sports were reinstated for one year. A task force ordered by Wright recommended in December that the programs be continued and Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson went along with the findings.

So baseball was back, but no one believed the team could do much this season besides survive.

No one, that is, except the coaches and the players.

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“The players have done a great job of proving people wrong,” said assistant Randy Cooper, who bounced back from adversity of his own. He was the head coach at Mission College when that program was cut last spring.

“It would have been real easy for the players and coaches to accept what everybody thought we were going to be. Instead, we took the cue from Batesole and got better day by day.”

Batesole, 34, became one the nation’s youngest coaches to reach 100 victories when Northridge defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Feb. 10. This season has only enhanced his reputation.

But the former Dodger minor league third baseman downplays his role, suggesting that the winning streak began when he stepped out of the players’ way.

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“I was trying to control too much on game days,” he said. “I was on them about every little thing. I didn’t know these guys and I had to learn to trust them.”

Now he says he wouldn’t trade these players for the talented group he had assembled last spring. And what a team that might have been.

Left-handed pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and Benny Flores each won 11 games last season, but bolted to Fullerton even before Northridge announced it was dropping the program. They might have been joined in the rotation by right-hander David Walling, who instead followed former Northridge pitching coach Tim Montez to Arkansas. Walling did not allow an earned run in his first 38 innings this season.

Others who transferred include outfielder Terrmel Sledge to Long Beach State, first baseman Casey Cheshier to San Jose State and outfielder Ryan Hurd to San Diego State. All are batting well over .300.

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“This was the year we were going to the College World Series,” Batesole said.

Even with the winning streak, a regional berth is a longshot because of the Matadors’ independent status and their relatively soft schedule. But how about next year?

“The only way this turns around for good is if the highest level of recruits trust this program again,” Batesole said. “We’ve got to have the maximum number of scholarships, build a stadium and be in a conference.”

Too much to ask? Northridge Athletic Director Paul Bubb sends mixed signals. He reduced the program’s scholarships from nine to eight for next year--the NCAA limit is 11.7--but plans to return the number to nine in 2000 and increase it to 10 the following year.

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“A relatively small investment in baseball can produce a great return,” Bubb said. “There’s no question the program can continue to excel.”

And help may be on the way. An 1,800-seat baseball stadium is part of a three-year school plan that also includes new football and softball stadiums.

Meanwhile, the players who have pumped life back into the program continue to impress.

“This shows how much talent there is in Southern California,” Batesole said. “Bringing the team back this strong, this quickly could never have happened anywhere else. I grabbed whoever I could and they turned out to be good ballplayers with great attitudes.”

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