Chuck Berrington doesn't have a doctorate in psychology, but he should probably receive an honorary degree after the season.
The Westlake High baseball coach has covered all the bases this season, calming nerves created by high expectations, curbing disappointment after early season struggles and, finally, guiding the Warriors to the Marmonte League title in a down-to-the-wire race.
It has not been a smooth ride for Berrington and the Warriors, who have negotiated plenty of potholes to reach Dodger Stadium. Despite a season of ups and downs, everything takes a back seat when Westlake plays Placentia El Dorado in the Southern Section Division III final today at 1 p.m.
The Warriors (25-6-1) have been here before. They played in the Division III final in 1998 and led South Hills, 3-2, before allowing seven runs in the seventh inning and losing, 9-3.
Berrington sighs. He was in his second season then.
"It's been in the back of my head for years," he said.
Westlake's top players this season, seniors Tyler Adamczyk and Mike Nickeas, were freshmen at the time. Adamczyk watched from the Dodger Stadium stands, Nickeas from the dugout as a reserve.
"It was an amazing experience . . . up until the last inning," said Nickeas, adding that the memory has provided motivation for today's game. "It's an itch that needs to be scratched. We're just kind of waiting to break through and make ourselves known as a powerhouse."
Rarely does a high school team contain such an abundance of talent, a reason Westlake was considered the division favorite before the season.
Adamczyk, a pitcher-first baseman who signed with California, and Nickeas, a catcher who signed with Georgia Tech, were listed among the top 100 high school players by Baseball America.
But talent did not equal triumph.
The Warriors won their first three games before enduring a turbulent 0-3-1 skid. They lost one-run games to Kennedy and Cleveland, tied Newbury Park and, in the low point of the season, blew a seven-run lead in a 10-8 loss to Thousand Oaks.
Westlake straightened out for a while, but committed three errors and couldn't field a bunt in an 11-4 loss to Agoura on May 2.
Berrington had seen enough. When the team bus returned to Westlake, he called an immediate practice. It lasted until sunset.
"It was a psychology thing that worked," Berrington said. "It was kind of a shake-up, one of the few times I've done that."
Agoura lost two of its last three league games and Westlake defeated Royal, 3-0, on the last day of league play to secure its second consecutive league title.
The Warriors are top-seeded in the division, but No. 3-seeded El Dorado (25-5) is playing first-rate baseball, winning eight consecutive games while averaging 10 runs in four playoff outings.
Nick McMillan (8-1) will start for El Dorado, though Jeff Flaig (12-2) could continue to be a factor. Flaig has been the winning pitcher in every playoff game, twice as a starter and twice in relief.
The Golden Hawks, pursuing their second Division III title in three seasons, are familiar with adversity.
They scored five runs in the sixth inning of a 10-5 first-round victory over Artesia and defeated Santa Margarita in the quarterfinals, 8-7, on a run-scoring single by Bryan Jackson in the 10th inning.
El Dorado rallied from a 3-0 deficit on Tuesday to defeat Laguna Hills, 12-6, in the semifinals.
"For us to maintain our poise [like that] was indicative of the way we've handled things all year," first-year Coach Matt Stine said. "They have the presence of mind knowing they have a chance to win a game no matter how far behind they are."
Stine is concerned with the heart of Westlake's lineup--Nickeas, Adamczyk and shortstop Ryan McCarthy, who plans to walk on at UCLA.
"Their 3-4-5 hitters are their studs," he said. "Those are their guys."
Justin Blaine (10-2) will start for Westlake, with Adamczyk capable of pitching up to four innings after going six innings Tuesday in a 7-2 victory over Norte Vista.
The Warriors have skill. And substance, as they've demonstrated recently.
They'll need both in today's game to have a championship.