Orange County is the site of some of top high school baseball tournaments in Southern California. One of the best--and most often overlooked--is the Loara tournament, now in its 18th year.
This year's entrants, who begin play Friday, are again top-notch. Nineteen of 32 teams entered reached the playoffs last season. Two made their division finals and one--Canyon--won a title.
Some of the players in the tournament who have gone on to the major leagues include Jim Edmonds (Diamond Bar), Phil Nevin (El Dorado), J.T. Snow (Los Alamitos), Marc Newfield (Marina), Damian Easley (Lakewood), Robb Nen (Los Alamitos) and Greg Hansel (Kennedy).
But the tournament rarely gets the attention it deserves--beyond scouts and aficionados--for a couple of reasons: Its early starting date conflicts with the high school basketball playoffs, and Mother Nature often plays havoc with the schedule.
"The running joke is if it's raining, it must be Loara tournament time," Loara Coach Dave Lappin said.
Despite those problems, Lappin said he never has trouble getting a strong field.
"We attract the schools because they are guaranteed five games," Lappin said. "And there is not a better way to prepare for league because you will play five very good teams.
"Last year, Laguna Hills went 1-4 in the tournament and still won their league. Some very good teams will go 3-2 and 2-3."
El Dorado, which defeated Katella for the 1997 tournament championship, is one of 25 county teams entered. Others include top-ranked Santa Margarita, Canyon, Fountain Valley, Pacifica, Servite, Laguna Hills and Dana Hills. Out-of-county teams include Lakewood, Long Beach Wilson, Diamond Bar and La Mirada.
As for the rain, it has only disrupted the tournament once in the last six years.
"Our tournament has always been the one to launch the baseball season," Lappin said. "I have no jealousy of the National Classic because they bring teams from out of state and it's at a different time of year. With our tournament, there is not a better way for a team to find out where it stands."
Last season belonged to the offense. All 24 new entries into the county record book came in the hitting categories.
But this season a significant pitching record is within reach.
Jim Peterson won a county-record 40 games for Sonora from 1970-73. Calvary Chapel right-hander John Tucker begins the year with 29 victories.
Guaranteed one of the two starting spots for the Eagles, Tucker could appear in 12-13 games. If Calvary Chapel makes the playoffs and advances to the title game, three more starts are possible.
"He has a shot," Calvary Chapel Coach Joe Walters said. "He has to win, but he has a lot of confidence. John also wants to pitch in college and is motivated to perform. But [the record] won't be an obsession for us or him. He's never said anything about it. And he's always been a team guy."
Laguna Beach doesn't have a curse hanging over its bats and gloves. But the Artists have drawn blanks when it comes to reaching the playoffs. You have to go back to 1963 to find the last postseason appearance by Laguna Beach. That year, they won the Orange League title but lost to Mater Dei in the first round of the playoffs.
Coach Greg Marshall said he believes there's enough talent on this year's team to break through.
"I've had the seniors in our program for four years," said Marshall, whose record is 22-49 in three seasons. "We have experience. Probably the one thing we're missing is that ace starting pitcher. If we had that, we'd be nails."
La Quinta catcher Gerald Laird, The Times Orange County player of the year in 1997, is expected to be selected in major league baseball's June free-agent draft. But in case his professional dreams aren't realized, Laird has agreed to attend Arizona State.
Among other county players who have made college commitments: El Toro's Clemente Bonilla (Southeast Missouri State), Santa Margarita's Mark Strickroth (Notre Dame) and Casey Grzecka (Long Beach State) and Capistrano Valley's Curt Rodriguez (Brigham Young).
Heritage Christian shortstop and pitcher Paul Caffrey served notice in 1996 as to the kind of hitter he would be when he set the county single-season record for highest average (.597) and a section record for triples (13).
Yet there's an entry on Caffrey's resume that defies belief.
According to the Heritage coaches, Caffrey has struck out only once the last two varsity seasons, covering 136 at-bats. It happened in the first inning of last year's Division V playoff loss to Avalon; Lancer pitcher Leon Hard got Caffrey swinging.