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A MAJOR GOLD MINE : Coach Credits Competitive Drive With Helping Former Golden Hawks Strike It Rich

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do Bret Boone, Matt Luke, Phil Nevin and Brett Tomko have in common?

In addition to being major leaguers, Boone, Luke, Nevin and Tomko played their high school baseball at El Dorado.

Boone, a second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, was a standout infielder by his senior year in 1987.

Luke, a reserve with the Dodgers, and Nevin, who was traded to the Angels before the start of this season, were the first baseman and shortstop on El Dorado’s 1989 Southern Section 5-A championship team their senior year.

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Tomko, also with the Reds, was a steady, if unheralded, pitcher in 1991 as a senior at El Dorado.

Considering the number of excellent high school baseball programs throughout the county, to have four eventual big leaguers in a five-year span is an amazing run of talent and luck, according to Hawks Coach Steve Gullotti.

“I think it’s rare for a coach to have any player make it to the bigs,” Gullotti said. “To have four is a combination of being in the right place at the right time, and having a program that encourages the players to work to develop their potential.

“There are lots of factors beyond just high school. It’s having good parents, good Little League programs and good college programs. All four went to good colleges, and all four of them had talent.”

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Gullotti suggests another common denominator.

“They all had a great inner drive to compete,” he said. “They had different talent levels, but they were all very competitive.”

Katella Coach Tim McMenamin, for one, thinks Gullotti could take a couple more bows.

“They have a good youth program where kids start learning their style of play,” McMenamin said. “Steve also runs a baseball school. They have great facilities at El Dorado and a great field to play on. Plus, they have the reputation that kids who go to El Dorado are better when they come out.

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“All in all, it’s very attractive.”

Each of the players had distinct memories of his El Dorado days.

“High school was a great time,” Luke said. “I got to meet friends that I still keep in touch with. I liked the classroom. Teachers were great, students were great, coaches were great.

“It felt like everything was clicking. It’s a good atmosphere to go to school and play sports in.”

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Nevin, chatting at Edison Field before a recent Angel game, said he attended El Dorado games as a youth and was determined to wear a Golden Hawk uniform.

“I couldn’t wait to play for El Dorado,” he said. “They had that reputation of being a great baseball school. They still do.”

Tomko’s memories weren’t as golden. His older brother Scott, a talented player before a shoulder injury at South Florida ended his career, had a falling out with one of the assistant coaches. It limited his playing time at El Dorado, which caused some hard feelings between Tomko’s family and the El Dorado coaching staff.

“I don’t remember exactly what happened,” said Tomko, on the phone during a recent Reds trip. “I think I held a grudge and kept it in the back of my mind the whole time there. But I didn’t quit. I liked playing baseball too much.

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“And I had a great time going to school there. We lived across the street from El Dorado. My first class was 50 yards from the house. I liked being so close. I could literally roll out of bed and go on to class, and I’d go home for lunch.”

Different Levels

By the time they were seniors, each was at a different level of development as a ballplayer.

In Gullotti’s estimation, Boone was the most gifted of the four. “Head and shoulders above the others,” he said. Perhaps that’s because Boone’s entire athletic focus was on baseball. Nevin, Luke and Tomko played a number of sports at El Dorado.

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Nevin was a strong-legged kicker on the football team. His 57-yard field goal against Esperanza in 1988 stood as a county record until last fall. Luke also played football, and he and Tomko excelled in basketball. In fact, Tomko still holds the school’s single-game scoring record of 55 points, set against Compton in a 1990 Brea Olinda holiday tournament.

“That’s my greatest moment,” said Tomko, laughing.

His baseball moments weren’t bad either. As a spot starter and reliever his senior year, Tomko was 5-1 with four saves and a 3.63 earned-run average. In 44 innings he struck out 25 and walked 24.

He also performed well in big games. His first varsity start that season was against Katella, primarily because the top pitchers were unavailable. Shawn Holcomb had a tender elbow and Andy Brazeel was benched a game for missing a team meeting.

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Tomko, who didn’t know he was starting until Gullotti told him at lunchtime, pitched a complete game and won, 4-3.

But Tomko had a better effort a week later, stopping Esperanza on four hits in a 2-0 victory. It was the first time in two seasons Esperanza, at that time the county’s top-ranked team, had been shut out.

Nevertheless, Tomko said his baseball career at El Dorado “was weird.”

“I played third and first. I wasn’t concentrating on baseball. I was more into basketball,” said Tomko, now 25. “I didn’t know if I would do something in basketball, but that’s what I liked to do.”

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The Hawks finished the 1991 baseball season 20-8 and reached the second round of the 5A playoffs.

Tomko was ready to give up baseball after high school, but his brother Scott persuaded him to join him at Mt. San Antonio College. “It was our chance to play together,” Brett said.

At Mt. SAC, and later at Florida Southern, Tomko blossomed. His fastball, which was in the low 80s in high school, jumped to the low 90s. Cincinnati drafted him in the second round of the 1995 draft. He made it to the majors last year and posted an 11-7 record in 19 starts.

Gullotti admits he is amazed by Tomko’s emergence.

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“When he was here, no one projected him as a major league player,” Gullotti said. “I figured he would play JC ball and that would be it. I’m shocked to see where he is, and I mean that in a positive way.

“He was quiet but very intelligent. And he always had pinpoint control. But to make it to the majors is a credit to his perseverance.”

Tomko, who credits Scott and Mt. SAC baseball Coach Art Mazmanian for his development, derives some satisfaction in surprising people at his alma mater.

“I felt a lot of people there had written me off in high school,” he said. “No one thought I would ever do anything. I believe that’s what drove me to where I am today.

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“I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to be able to come back here and hear people say, ‘Is that the same guy who went to El Dorado?’ That motivated me more than anything.”

Late Bloomer

Like Tomko, Luke, 27, said he was late in developing his baseball talents. But part of that, he said, was because his coordination had trouble keeping up with his body, which grew quickly into his adult height of 6-5.

“I was a bit awkward,” said Luke, who transferred to El Dorado from Brea Olinda as a sophomore. “And I was thin. I wasn’t a power hitter in high school.”

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He was a good contact hitter though. As a senior, Luke batted .404 with three home runs and 12 runs batted in, and pitched well enough to go 6-1 with a 1.57 ERA. He pitched a no-hitter against Servite that year.

“He is one of those types who finds a way to win the game for you,” Gullotti said.

Luke was at his best in the section playoffs, driving in or scoring the winning run in four of the five games El Dorado played. He was instrumental in two of El Dorado’s biggest plays during its title run.

In the semifinals against Lakewood, Luke, who also pitched the game, singled home Nevin with the winning run. In the championship game against Long Beach Millikan at Dodger Stadium, Luke caught everyone by surprise by stealing home with two outs in the fifth inning for the game’s first run.

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“A left-hander [Todd Taylor] was throwing for them and he had a slow windup,” said Luke, who had reached third on a bunt single and two sacrifices.

“Gullotti was the third base coach, and said, ‘See how far you can get off.’ I started walking, kept walking, kept walking. . . . They made no attempt to get me. I saw the windup and took off. It was bang-bang at the plate.”

El Dorado went on to win, 2-0, and earn its first large-school division baseball title. The Hawks had previously won the 2-A title in 1976 and were 3-A runners-up in 1981.

“I still have the championship ring,” Luke said. “It’s one of my prized possessions.”

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Luke’s frame filled out during his three years at California. His bat found some home run pop, which attracted pro scouts. But his major league career hasn’t been easy.

The Yankees drafted him in the eighth round in 1992. He languished in their farm system for six seasons. The Dodgers claimed him off waivers this past off-season, and Luke earned a roster spot in spring training.

He said the slow, steady climb has been worth it.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play in the majors,” Luke said, “but I thought the dream was over after high school.

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“At that time the goal was to play Division I college ball, and I was lucky enough to go to Berkeley and play for three years. In college I was thinking I could play pro.”

Luke said the baseball training he received at El Dorado was beneficial.

“Steve Gullotti has had success at getting players to the collegiate level. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go there,” Luke said. “He helped me refine my skills.

“Steve had so many good players, getting one-on-one instruction was tough sometimes. But the team atmosphere was good. Everyone felt part of the team. My senior year, the majority of the team was seniors. That group really bonded on and off the field.”

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Heart and Soul

Nevin agrees with Luke: The Golden Hawks team of 1989, which finished 23-8, was loaded.

Others on that team included pitcher Pete Janicki, who went on to UCLA and is in the Angels’ farm system; catcher Bruce Petillo, who went to Pacific and was signed by the Phillies, and pitcher Jay Hassel, who spent time in the Cubs’ minor league system.

Outfielder/pitcher Travis Dowdell and pitcher/outfielder Shane Borowski earned scholarships to Brigham Young and Cal State Los Angeles, respectively.

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“People don’t remember we started the season something like 1-5,” said Nevin, 27. “But we knew how good we were. Once we put it together, we just steam-rolled. There wasn’t anyone who was going to beat us.”

Nevin was the team’s heart and soul. He batted .347 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs. And he was involved in a home-plate collision in the playoffs that is now part of El Dorado lore.

It happened in the semifinals against Lakewood. The score was tied, 2-2, in the eighth when Nevin doubled. Luke singled to right, but outfielder Richard Lovan’s throw to the plate had Nevin beat.

Nevin, however, rammed into catcher Keith Tripp, knocking out the ball and one of Tripp’s front teeth. Although Nevin was ejected from the game for not sliding, the run counted.

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“Phil was such a competitor,” Luke said. “He had been blessed with great hand-eye coordination and body strength. On the baseball field he was the leader. He was ahead of everybody in high school. As far as power, he was one of the main guys.”

Nevin was drafted by the Dodgers in the third round, but decided to attend Cal State Fullerton, where he played three years of football and baseball. His 54-yard field goal against Cal State Northridge in 1989 is the second longest in Titan history. He also booted a 54-yarder against UNLV in 1990.

He was even better in baseball, leading Fullerton to the 1992 NCAA championship game against Pepperdine. His 251 hits are fourth on the school’s all-time list.

Nevin won the Golden Spikes Award in 1992 as the nation’s top amateur player, and that same year he was selected by the Houston Astros with the first overall pick of the draft. He had played for Houston and Detroit before the Tigers traded him to the Angels this past winter.

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Gullotti, who had initially watched Nevin play in Little League, said he was one of the most intense players he has coached.

“I remember one game where he struck out and angrily threw his bat,” Gullotti said. “I didn’t actually see him do it, but watched later on videotape. So I sat him down a couple of games.

“That was the worst thing I could do to him. If I had punished him with laps or other physical drills, he would have been happy. But to have to sit and watch . . . well, he never actually sat on the bench, more like prowled.”

That was one of the many lessons Nevin said he learned in high school.

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“El Dorado is where I learned how to be a baseball player,” he said. “Steve was a huge influence on my career. He’s somebody I still talk to quite a bit. He’s still a good friend of mine.

“He knows how to prepare his players, not only to win and be successful in high school, but in life. That’s why you see so many players come out of there.”

Family Background

By the time he was a senior, Boone--who could not be reached for this story--had a reputation as an excellent baseball player and as a flake.

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“He was definitely a free spirit,” Gullotti said. “A ‘Dennis the Menace’ type.

“I remember one day when his dad came to the classroom to drop Bret’s lunch off. But Bret didn’t come to school that day; he had gone to a friend’s house and was sleeping, planning to come later for baseball practice.

“His dad went and got him, dragging him to class. He wasn’t too happy.”

Boone, 25, is a third generation major leaguer. His father Bob played 19 years with three teams, including the Angels. His grandfather Ray played 13 seasons with six teams. Bret’s younger brother Aaron, who attended Villa Park High, is his teammate on the Reds.

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Gullotti said Boone, to his credit, never flaunted his father’s name to garner influence. “In fact, he didn’t like it when the media would write about him as ‘Bret Boone, son of major leaguer Bob Boone.’ He said it should have been ‘Bob Boone, father of Bret Boone.’ ”

Bret also never doubted he would play in the majors, even if scouts didn’t initially agree with him.

“When he felt he wasn’t drafted high enough in high school [28th round by Minnesota], he took it personally and went on to USC. When he felt he wasn’t drafted high enough out of college [fifth round by Seattle, 1990] he also took that personally,” Gullotti said.

“But he had the best hands of any player I’ve coached. And by the time he was a senior, he was a terrific player.”

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Boone turned in an all-county season for the 22-5 El Dorado team in 1987 that reached the 4-A semifinals. He batted .500 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs, and was named to the Times all-county team.

And who knows, El Dorado might have reached the title game had Boone played the entire semifinal against Lakewood. But he was ejected in the third inning, along with Lakewood second baseman Paul Graves, after the two exchanged words and shoved each other after a pickoff play at second base.

After graduating from El Dorado, Boone made sure he wouldn’t soon be forgotten.

“He came back to a couple of baseball banquets,” Luke said, “and he had his hair spiked, like a punk rocker.”

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