Nobody told College of the Canyons it would be easy. It never is in the state tournament. And, thanks to the Harbor Seahawks, it wasn't Saturday.
After giving up a pair of home runs in the third, Canyons pitcher Frank Halcovich regained control long enough for his teammates to come back with four runs in the seventh and eighth to beat Harbor, 4-3, in the first game of the state tournament Southern Regional.
The teams meet again today, at 11 a.m., in the best-of-three series at Canyons. If necessary, a third game will begin approximately 20 minutes after the second game.
The fact that Canyons had to come from behind was, perhaps, a surprise. Ranked No.1 in the Southland Poll by sports information directors, and favored to win its third state championship, Canyons (35-5) normally has a comfortable lead going into the late innings. The last time the Cougars had to come from behind, they didn't. Valley College beat them three weeks ago, 9-8, despite ninth-inning home runs by Don Erickson and Scott Drury.
But Harbor, ranked No. 6, baffled the Cougars in the first six innings behind strong pitching from right-hander Dave Haggard (4-2). Haggard gave up five hits, walked none, had four strikeouts and didn't give up a run before he was pulled in the seventh inning in favor of Jim Hudson.
Enter leftfielder Alex Vasquez, formerly of Alemany High. Vasquez may be the type of unheralded player that Canyons Coach Mike Gillespie believes his team needs to succeed in the state tournament. When the Cougars were down, 3-0, in the seventh, Vasquez lashed a fastball from Harbor reliever Jim Hudson for a double, scoring Halcovich and Drury. Vasquez scored from second on a single by third baseman Andy Cutchall.
Talk about unsung heroes? In the Canyons batting order, Vasquez and Cutchall bat eighth and ninth, respectively. Alex and Andy combined to drive in all four Canyons runs.
"I thought Alex was absolutely a hero today," Gillespie said. "He looked bad in his first two at-bats, a stikeout and a ground out, but he pulled through." Vasquez is platooned in left with Joe Pieper and doesn't have as many at-bats as other Canyons players, putting into perspective his .370 average.
Vasquez' RBI double in the seventh only tied the score. The 6-1, 180-pound freshman gave Canyons the win when he singled of Harbor's Dave Alexander in the eighth with Halcovich onsecond. The run gave Canyons a 1-0 lead in the series.
He must be happy, right?
"We have to be happy anytime we win," Vasquez said. "But I'm not totally satisfied. A win tomorrow--that would satisfy me."
To win today, Canyons will be relying on pitcher Darrin Beer, the former Crescenta Valley High star. Beer (12-1) and Halcovich have combined for 25 wins this season.
But, again, it won't be easy. Harbor (27-12) isn't a pushover, as it proved Saturday when it jumped out to a 3-0 lead in a matter of minutes.
Centerfielder Derek Sholl hit Halcovich's first pitch in the third inning for a home run. Jack Hollis singled. Rick Tamayo followed with a single, and Hollis was gunned down by Canyon's right fielder Chris Cota when he tried to take third.
With Tamayo on first, Dan Campbell homered to give Harbor a 3-0 lead.
"I just hung a couple of sliders in there," said Halcovich. "Good teams will hit you if you get your pitches up. They came into the game pumped up. I made a couple of mistakes and they jumped all over me."
If he has his way, Halcovich won't pitch again until next week when the final eight teams play in Long Beach to determine the state champion. If Harbor Coach Jim O'Brien has his way, Halcovich won't pitch again until he arrives at the University of Arizona next season.
"We thought we could beat Halcovich," O'Brien said. "But the kid is tough, a real competitor.
Darrin Beer (12-1) will start for Canyons today. Thursday, Beer pitched Canyons to a 9-3 win over Taft in a non-conference game. . . . Harbor Coach Jim O'Brien said he was undecided on who would pitch for the Seahawks today. He said he has four pitchers to choose from. . . . Pete Kuld homered against Taft, tying Bill Bluhm's school record of 16. . . . Halcovich's win gives him 13 this season, tying him with 1984 Canyons player Dan Morris for most wins in a season.