* Canyon: 25-6, 12-3 in 1997. Coach: Mike Najera (sixth year, 108-30). Prospects: Canyon had quite a roller-coaster ride in 1997. The Comanches began the year as USA Today’s top-ranked team, were beaten in the Loara and National Classic tournaments, were beaten out for the league title by Foothill, but then ran the table in the Division III playoffs to win a second consecutive section title. Although Najera lost quite a few quality players to graduation, there isn’t too much of a dropoff. Among the six returning starters are all-league catcher Tommy Duarte (.468, 30 RBIs) and shortstop Jason Corapci (.441, two home runs, 23 RBIs) and second-team picks Jason Reuss, a utility man, and Brian Dane.

* El Modena: 5-19-1, 1-14 in 1997. Coach: Tom Kostic (third year, 10-39-1). Prospects: Few county teams had to endure the kind of season the Vanguards suffered through last year. But, hopefully for them, the worst is in the past. Kostic must find some pitchers whose psyches haven’t been battered beyond belief, because the lineup that includes all-league outfielder Mike Walters (.390, four home runs, 26 RBIs) and second-teamer Tony Calderon (.360, 16 RBIs) will score runs. Playing .500 baseball is not an unreasonable goal for El Modena. And if the Vanguards can get some confidence early, a playoff spot is within reach.

* Foothill: 19-7, 13-2 in 1997. Coach: Vince Brown (third year, 35-15). Prospects: The Knights made people take notice when they finished ahead of Canyon for the league title. But Foothill then stumbled with its first-round playoff loss. Brown will try to get Foothill to the next level with 15 returning lettermen, five of them starters. An important cog is catcher Josh Arhart (.400, three home runs, 23 RBIs), who shared the league MVP title with Canyon pitcher Jeff Leuenberger. Also back are all-league outfielderer Chad Concolino and third baseman Jon Stephens (.400). The pitching staff is practically brand new, and will need time to jell. If they do, Foothill’s playoff run should be longer than one game.

* Orange: 8-17, 5-10 in 1997. Coach: Chris Esperanza (first year, 0-0). Prospects: The 16 Panther seniors are carrying a heavy burden into this season. They were on a league championship team as freshmen, but Orange hasn’t returned to the top since. Last year, the drop was all the way to fifth place. Esperanza has his top pitcher Brett Sewell back, plus catcher Evan Gramley and all-league shortstop Felipe Gudino. Esperanza said the Panthers have a new attitude too. “We will be more aggressive,” he said. “The team learned from last year. They understand what it means to have high expectations, not meet them and the disappointment that brings. They don’t want the sour taste again.”


* Santa Ana Valley: 14-13, 6-9 in 1997. Coach: Leon Smith (fourth year, 33-42). Prospects: Smith has spent the past two seasons putting Valley’s program back on track. The Falcons got close to the playoffs last year, finishing fourth. With seven returning starters, they will be in the fight with El Modena and Orange for third place. Leading the battle are all-league outfielder/pitcher Danny Montoya (.427) and all-league first baseman Bryan Save (.343). Not only does Falcon baseball have a future, it appears to be looking brighter.

* Villa Park: 12-13, 8-7 in 1997. Coach: Dave Ochoa (second year, 12-13). Prospects: Third place may be a lot harder for the Spartans to hold onto this season. Ochoa has only two returning starters on which to build his team’s foundation: second-team all-league outfielder Matt Swearingen (.522 in limited play) and pitcher/infielder Rob McConchiese. Besides keeping their string of five consecutive playoff appearances alive, perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ochoa and his staff is not allowing the program to take a giant step backward.