Images of greener pastures always seemed to beckon Mike Torres. Thoughts of a Southern Section baseball title kept him in place.
From the time he made the decision to attend Santa Ana Mater Dei, only to learn later that the pitching coach he wanted to learn under had taken another job, to changing positions heading into his junior season, Torres had cause to apply his skills elsewhere.
But after each setback, Torres decided it was best to stay at Mater Dei. Not only was he forming a lasting bond with the parochial school and a growing group of friends, he also recognized he could be part of something special.
His beliefs rang true last month in the Division I championship game. Torres, a USC-bound second baseman, had three hits and drove in three runs to help the Monarchs to a 9-3 victory over top-seeded Riverside Poly at Angel Stadium, securing the program's first title in 25 years.
"I don't think I'm ever going to forget winning the [section] championship," said Torres, The Times' baseball player of the year. "Especially at Mater Dei, where they hadn't won one in a while."
The left-handed-hitter, who batted third, was the toughest out in the Monarch lineup last season. Despite playing with a hernia the last two months, he batted .459 with 23 runs batted in and stole 19 bases in 20 attempts, earning him Serra League co-most valuable player and Division I player of the year.
Torres said he never contemplated sitting out because of his injury. In a 7-1 semifinal victory over Moreno Valley Canyon Springs, he gave the Monarchs a 1-0 lead with a first-inning triple over the head of the right fielder and was in obvious pain as he dusted off after a head-first slide.
Mike Torres Sr. said he thought his son's season was over after the play, but Torres remained in the game and scored the second run on a sacrifice fly.
Torres, who is scheduled to have hernia surgery early next month, said he did not remove himself from the game for the same reason he didn't transfer. He wanted to be part of something special.
"We had a team meeting," Torres said Wednesday night from Cancun, where he's on a 10-day graduation trip. "And we all said, if at anytime I wasn't doing the job, we had to go with someone else."
When Torres decided to enroll at Mater Dei, he had five years of pitching lessons under his belt. He had originally planned to continue developing his skills under Steve Lambright, formerly an assistant coach. But Lambright left for Huntington Beach Edison after the 1999 season, a few months after Burt Call was selected to take over for longtime Mater Dei Coach Bob Ickes.
Torres decided to attend Mater Dei anyway, but then learned that its pitchers typically do not hit for themselves, so he decided to keep mum regarding his pitching experience.
He was elevated to the varsity at the end of his freshman year. Torres earned the starting shortstop job his sophomore year and that summer was invited to participate in the U.S. Junior Olympic trials. After an arm injury prevented Torres from making the team, Danny Espinosa, then the second baseman at Mater Dei, became the starting shortstop on the Junior Olympic team.
The next season, Espinosa beat out Torres at shortstop for Mater Dei as well. Torres said he considered transferring to Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley, but was unable to walk away from his relationships.
"I could have played shortstop somewhere else," he said. "But deep down, I knew there was something special about our team, just the way we clicked."
Torres won league player-of-the-year honors as a junior and signed with USC in the fall, setting the stage for a banner senior season. Today, he cherishes his decision to remain at Mater Dei.
"If I would have left," he said, "I would have missed out."