* Aliso Niguel: 16-10, 11-4 in 1997. Coach: Mike Chapman (fourth year, 37-35). Prospects: The Wolverines were part of the county's best league race last year, finishing a game out of first and a half-game out of second. Aliso Niguel expects be in the race again this year. Among the seven returning starters are the county's leading hitter, Times all-county infielder Skip Schumaker (.589, six home runs, 22 RBIs), and second-team all-league outfielders Jeff Campbell (.434, 11 RBIs) and Scott Esecson and outfielder/pitcher Drew Parkin. Pitching will determine what kind of contender Aliso Niguel will be.

* Costa Mesa: 7-15, 2-13 in 1997. Coach: Kirk Bavermeister (first year, 0-0). Prospects: Bavermeister, who last coached baseball in 1988, has some work to do. The Mustangs have five returning starters, led by outfielder Ben Felter (.333). Bavermeister plans to give several junior varsity players a chance to play on a regular basis. On offense Costa Mesa will depend more on speed than muscle.

* Estancia: 3-20-1, 1-13-1 in 1997. Coach: Joe McKettrick (first year, 0-0). Prospects: McKettrick either doesn't know the Eagles' recent history--five victories (three in league) and 42 losses the past two years--or doesn't care. He has been on the coaching staffs at Fullerton (1996), Magnolia (1997), Orange Lutheran (1973) and Montclair Prep (1978) when they won their respective league titles. He plans on doing the same at Estancia. "We're going to be a true dark horse," McKettrick said. "We can go from last to first in one year. We have speed, pitching and defense. We are going to lead the county in stolen bases, and be among the top five schools in team ERA." McKettrick inherits six players, including second-team all league outfielder Long Nguyen and outfielder David Chavero. Left-hander Steve Wilson, whom McKettrick said "is a potential Division I prospect," and lefty John Meyer anchor the pitching staff.

* Laguna Beach: 12-13, 7-8 in 1997. Coach: Greg Marshall (fourth year, 22-49). Prospects: The words "baseball" and "playoffs" haven't been used in the same sentence at Laguna Beach since 1963. But Marshall said he believes this is the year the Artists will end their post-season drought. The talent includes all-league second baseman Ray Amador and all-league second-team outfielder Aaron Skinner (.424, one home run, eight RBIs, 20 steals). The pitching, if not above average, is experienced.

* Laguna Hills: 16-11-1, 11-3-1 in 1997. Coach: Pete Tereshuk (ninth year, 136-80-1). Prospects: The Hawks can look at two games last season that kept them from repeating as league champions--their tie with Estancia to begin league play, and their loss to Aliso Niguel in the final league game. If their pitching holds up, this year's race may not be that close. The Hawks have some of the county's best bats, beginning with Times all-county first baseman Nick Harvey (.457, 15 home runs, 44 RBIs)--who set a county single-season home run record--and including all-league outfielder/pitcher Ryan Johnson (.424, three home runs, 16 RBIs). They remain the team to beat in the Pacific Coast League.

* University: 20-8, 12-3 in 1997. Coach: Chris Conlin (ninth year, 123-98). Prospects: Conlin will be pressed to replace the best player he's had in two-time Times all-county outfielder/pitcher Garrett Atkins (.553, 12 home runs, 35 RBIs). Even more pressing is trotting out a pitching staff with no varsity experience. Until the pitchers mature, the Trojans will need the hitting of second team all-league outfielder Steve Nolan (.333) and first baseman Matt McNeill (.340), and the defensive presence of second baseman Jordan Comsky (one error in 17 games).

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