There are several good reasons Servite feels prepared to capture the Southern Section Division I championship won last year by Esperanza.

* The Friars have nine returning players--four of them starters--from last year's team that finished 24-4.

* Only Tustin has a realistic chance to keep Servite from winning a third consecutive Golden West League title.

* The Friars' pitching staff is experienced, their offense has a good balance of power and speed, and their defense is slick and savvy.

But Servite also has one of the county's top batteries: right-handed pitcher Brian Wolfe and catcher Ryan Garko.

Both are coming off excellent sophomore seasons that saw them selected to The Times Orange County's second team, the Golden West's first team and the Cal-Hi Underclass first team. Garko was also named to the California Baseball Coaches Assn. All-Southern Section first team.

And both are motivated by Servite's second-round loss to Encino Crespi in last year's playoffs.

"Last year, we had a great team," Garko said. "Good pitching, good hitting, defense. I thought we had a real shot at making the finals. It was disappointing for the team not to reach its potential."

The early exit from the playoffs was even harder on Wolfe. He started the game for Servite, and even though he did not take the loss, he gave up seven runs, six earned, in a 10-9 defeat.

"It was nerve-racking," said Wolfe, describing the game. "I was having control problems. Crespi was a great team, and we really hadn't seen a team like that until the playoffs. It was a new experience.

"I'm not overpowering, so if I'm not hitting spots and mixing in the curve, it's not hard to time my fastball."

Garko and Wolfe are opposites. Garko, a powerful 6 feet 2, 215 pounds, is the stronger personality and more outgoing. He has an aura of confidence and is used to running things; he was quarterback for Servite's football team.

Wolfe is taller at 6-3, leaner at 195 pounds, and quieter. He is more inclined to let his game speak for him.

Both understand that, as good as Servite is, they bear most of the expectations the Friars have for 1998.

Both certainly have the talent to do well.

Last year, Garko had the best hitting season by a county catcher not named Gerald Laird. He batted .577 with eight home runs and a county-leading 52 runs batted in. Servite Coach Tom Tereschuk said Garko drove in at least one run in 27 of Servite's 28 games.

Garko had a knack for getting RBIs in bunches. Against Saddleback, he hit two homers and drove in six. He had four RBIs against Trabuco Hills and three against Crescent City Del Norte in the Wienerschnitzel Big West tournament. He drove in three against La Quinta in the Loara tournament, where he came within a single of hitting for the cycle.

And in the no-hitter against Santa Ana that Wolfe pitched in with Jim Munroe and D.J. Houlton, Garko drove in four runs.

"He was the most dependable hitter we had," Tereschuk said. "He's very strong and has great bat speed. He's patient but also aggressive without going after bad pitches. That's what makes him dangerous."

Garko exasperated opponents' efforts to contain him. In a league game last season, Westminster Coach Jim Doyle shifted his second baseman to right-center field in an attempt to thwart Garko.

"We were trying to make him change his swing--or at least make him think," Doyle said. "So we did [the shift] twice. The first time he still drove the ball into a gap for a double, and the second time he hit it over some houses for a homer.

"This year, I'm thinking of walking him every time. The kid can flat-out hit. He could be another [Cypress'] Bobby Brito, with more power."

Garko's bat has instilled a little fear in his teammates. Ryan Delany, who was a second baseman last year but is trying to crack the outfield this year, said it hasn't been fun when Garko takes his cuts during batting practice.

"I used to pray he wouldn't hit it at me," Delany said. "He hits the ball so hard."

Even La Quinta's Laird, considered by many to be the county's best player, said he keeps track of Garko's performances. "He's one of the guys I look up in the paper to see how he's doing," Laird said.

Garko underplays the praise.

"I'm more of a contact hitter than a power hitter," he said. "I try to go to all fields. I'll hit more doubles than homers. There are times I'll try to go deep, but I'm usually not up there trying for homers."

While Tereschuk said, "there isn't a better hitter in the county than Ryan," he added Laird is the better all-around catcher--for now.

"Gerald Laird is a great player and fantastic catcher now because he's played the position longer," Tereschuk said. "Ryan is still learning as a catcher and will be great. At the plate he is already a clutch guy. He just doesn't make that many outs."

Garko is in his second year as a catcher (as a freshman he played thrid and was a designated hitter) and said he is still grasping the nuances of the position. "I still have to work on my throwing to bases and blocking pitches in the dirt," he said, adding he might have developed quicker if he wasn't splitting time with football.

Wolfe was as brilliant on the mound last season as Garko was with the bat, posting an 8-0 record. In 58 innings he struck out 73, gave up only 30 hits, walked 14 and posted a 0.96 earned-run average.

"We didn't plan for him to become a starter," Tereschuk said. "But as the season progressed, it became apparent he needed to be a starter."

Santa Ana Coach Zeke Barragan said Wolfe's ascent on the Friars' pitching staff was predictable.

"He had remarkable poise as sophomore last year," Barragan said. "That stood out, along with his command. He looked like he had been around the block a few times. He had a real sense of purpose I wouldn't expect to see in a kid his age."

But last year when the Friars were faced with a big game, they handed the ball to Munroe, who was a Times Orange County first-team selection. This year, Wolfe is expected to be the guy.

"This year, I would like to see a growth in maturity, which I have seen," Tereschuk said. "I'm not too worried. He is very confident when pitching.

"But in [the playoff] game against Crespi, for the first time he was affected by the [pressure] and did not perform like he had all season. With a whole year under his belt, I think he will have that maturity."

Wolfe expects it of himself too. He spent part of last summer playing for the O.C. Stars team that won the Mickey Mantle World Series in McKinney, Texas.

"I want to be the No. 1 guy," he said. "I want that role. Last year, Munroe set the example for the rest of us. I know what to do, to help the other young guys coming up."

When Wolfe is on the mound and Garko behind the plate, the pitcher said there will be only one boss.

"He will call the game," Wolfe said. "There might be a certain pitch I want to use in a certain situation, but Ryan will call the game. I trust him."

It won't be an easy road to the title for Servite, but the Friars have more in their arsenal than their top battery. Last season, right fielder and pitcher Jeff Hultner batted .320 and drove in 15 runs and designated hitter Mike Montano hit .400 in limited duty. Servite also got a boost over the summer with the addition of infielder Enoch Choi, who transferred from La Puente Bishop Amat.

Garko said he and his teammates are ready.

"On a good day I feel we can play with anybody in the county," he said. "We're not the kind of team that can get by with some of the mistakes we made last year. But if we're on, no one is better than us."

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