El Camino Real, Chatsworth On Collision Course

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They run into each other at malls, at batting cages, at parties, at movies. But those are just chance meetings between baseball players from Chatsworth and El Camino Real high schools.

The real fun takes place when the West Valley League rivals meet in the City Section 4-A Division championship game at Dodger Stadium. It happened in 1990, 1993 and 1994. Each game was decided by one run.

"Sometimes we win the league, sometimes they do," said Woody Cliffords, an All-City first baseman for El Camino Real. "It doesn't matter. We usually end up facing them again."

The teams meet three times in West Valley play. Players and coaches try not to overlook other opponents, but they realize that a trip to Dodger Stadium or the City 4-A title will likely be determined by an inevitable fourth game between rivals.

"It's always in the back of your mind," Chatsworth pitcher Mike Kunes said. "They're definitely in the way [of reaching] Dodger Stadium."

Chatsworth and El Camino Real open the 1998 season this week favored to reach the 4-A final. They possess pitching depth, talented players and top hitters.

Chatsworth Coach Tom Meusborn, 37, hasn't won a 4-A title since his rookie season in 1990. Twice the Chancellors lost to El Camino Real and pitcher Randy Wolf at Dodger Stadium. Last season, Chatsworth won the league title, then was upset by the Conquistadores and pitcher Shaun Fishman in the semifinals.

"They've had some dominant guys on the hill," Meusborn said of El Camino Real's pitching.

This season, Meusborn might finally have the dominant pitcher to match the Conquistadores. Kunes, a junior left-hander, had a 13-1 record in summer American Legion ball. Kunes did something extraordinary in the Legion playoffs. As a 15-year-old, he threw back-to-back nine-inning complete-game victories.

"So far, so good," Kunes said of his winter preparation.

But it's not just Kunes who has Meusborn excited. Pitcher Ismael Marin was the West Valley player of the year last season after compiling a 10-1 record. He's back, along with Tom Morefield, an All-City outfielder who almost beat Kennedy and pitcher Jon Garland last season in a terrific pitchers' duel.

Among the top hitters are third baseman Danny Eisenberg, outfielder Bryan Gant, first baseman Matt Cassel and Morefield, who finished with seven home runs. Shortstop Matt Fisher, a sophomore, committed only three errors as a freshman and is much improved as a hitter.

Meusborn isn't ready to call this group his most talented team, but give him time.

"Ask me at the end of the year," he said.

El Camino Real Coach Mike Maio is quietly plotting another ambush. Maio's Conquistadores have won three City titles in the 1990s. Last year's championship might have been his finest coaching achievement.

The Conquistadores struggled much of the season. Then Maio switched his ace, Fishman, from a starter to a reliever. Fishman pitched in all four playoff victories.

Maio, 58, has perhaps the City's most feared hitter in Cliffords, a Pepperdine-bound senior who batted .480 with eight home runs. He's so good that teams won't hesitate to walk him intentionally with the bases loaded.

"He has a beautiful swing," Maio said.

Like Chatsworth, El Camino Real is loaded with quality underclassmen. Juniors Brian Somoza (shortstop), Johnny Koegel (pitcher), Adam Sperling (pitcher) and Dan Williams (outfielder) all figure to be heard from, as will sophomore third baseman Conor Jackson and freshman infielder Carlos Gallo.

The key for El Camino Real will be finding a No. 1 pitcher. Left-hander Kurt Birkins is capable of throwing an effective curveball. Sperling has improved his velocity and Maio had enough confidence in Koegel to start him as a sophomore at Dodger Stadium.

"I think we're going to have a young team, but I think we're going to be good," Cliffords said.

In the '90s, El Camino Real has a 17-11 edge in its series with Chatsworth. Eight of the games have been decided by a single run. It would surprise no one if the two teams ended their season June 5 playing at Dodger Stadium.

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Boys' Baseball Top 10

Preseason rankings of regional high schools by sportwriters at The Times:

1: Chatsworth (West Valley) 20-9 (last year)

2: Notre Dame (Mission) 21-8

3: El Camino Real (West Valley) 25-10

4: Westlake (Marmonte) 17-8-1

5: Crespi (Mission) 22-9

6: Royal (Marmonte) 18-9

7: Crescenta Valley (Pacific) 15-8

8: Rio Mesa (Channel) 19-6

9: Burroughs (Foothill) 19-8

10: Kennedy (North Valley) 22-11

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AT A GLANCE

* THE PROVEN: Kennedy ace Jon Garland took his $1.3 million signing bonus and is with the Chicago Cubs. But the Golden Cougars' pitching staff hasn't lost much. Jack Cassel, a senior, impressed scouts with his velocity and control in winter ball. Wes Crown was the No. 2 pitcher behind Garland and can fool hitters with his curveball. Kennedy's defense is excellent, with Manny Bernal at shortstop. Tim Arroyo should be a .400 hitter at first base. If North Hollywood's pitching holds up, the Huskies can win a second consecutive East Valley League title. All-City second baseman Ismael Rangsiyawong (.466, 13 home runs) and all-league shortstop Jerrit Redlich are the leaders. Monroe is favored in the Mid-Valley League behind All-City pitcher John Ennis, the region's best pro prospect. Ennis threw a no-hitter and a perfect game last season and makes his debut today against host El Camino Real.

* THE PROMISING: Poly Coach Chuck Schwal filled his team with promising sophomores last season. The Parrots were able to finish second. Now he's taking aim at North Hollywood. Second baseman/pitcher Sal Trujillo is the senior leader. Granada Hills went 2-15 in Northwest Valley Conference play last season. The Highlanders could be much improved behind three juniors--pitcher Kameron Loe, first baseman Jon Bringuier and third baseman Peter Gunny. Junior Peter Tuber, one of the pitchers on Northridge Little League's 1994 U.S. championship team, has returned to baseball after a two-year layoff to boost the Highlanders' staff. San Fernando is another team with promising players. Junior shortstop Francisco Enriquez and senior catcher Edgar Esqueda are the players to watch.

* FAST FACT: Valley teams have won 24 of the past 25 City 4-A baseball titles, with Kennedy and Granada Hills each winning five.

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