Brian Ota knew a lot of people would question him when he made an uncharacteristic prediction at the start of the prep baseball season.
"Everybody thought I was crazy when I said we'd finish first," said the Huntington Park High School baseball coach, who in each of his four years as skipper had come close--though not close enough--to winning an Eastern League title.
But the Spartans did better than close this season. The team used an 11-game winning streak to breeze to an early title. In the process, Huntington Park snapped Bell's four-year reign at the top of the hill.
Both teams advance to the City Section CIF playoffs, which begin Friday. Huntington Park (12-3) is at home against Belmont, while Bell (11-4) entertains Marshall. Both games start at 3 p.m.
Surprising Style of Play
"Basically, we surprised a few people," Ota said. "We knew we would be competitive, but our style of play surprised people."
Huntington Park averaged more than seven runs a league game and received a stellar performance from previously unknown senior pitcher Eric Rodriguez.
Ota credits the personal determination of Rodriguez (7-2) as a major factor in the team's success. Rodriguez attempted to make the team the past two seasons, but academic problems kept him off the diamond. But when this year rolled around, a reborn Rodriguez showed up--and this time held his own in the classroom.
"His appearance was so unexpected," Ota said. "I knew he was a great athlete. . . . He just needed to get his head together."
Catcher Ed De La Torre has guided both Rodriguez and pitcher George Romero (5-1). Delatorre was on the receiving end of seven complete games and two shutouts by Rodriguez and five complete games and two shutouts by Romero. De La Torre also contributed at the plate, batting .319.
Senior second baseman Pedro Avila led the team in hitting with a .390 batting average. The team stole 56 bases.
Good Defensive Team
At Bell, Coach Bob Moroney is upbeat despite finishing below first for the first time in five seasons.
"This is one of the better defensive teams I've had," he said. "We have the ability to hit the ball well with power. I knew we'd be there with them (Huntington Park)."
Were it not for some unusual circumstances in a 1-0 loss to Roosevelt, Bell might have grabbed at least a piece of its fifth league title. According to Moroney, Bell should have beaten Roosevelt, 2-1, but didn't because the go-ahead runs were called back when a runner ran out of the base path.
"That would have made the last game of the season with Huntington Park the championship game," he said.
Bell avenged a pair of 8-0 losses to the league champion with a 7-2 victory in that season finale.
After the loss to Roosevelt, Moroney said, he "got on the kids pretty heavy. Maybe it's something I should have done sooner.
"The games we've lost, with the exception of one, we've flattened out a bit. We have a tendency at times to do that, and I don't know why."
Pitcher Tony Oliva is expected to start Friday for the Eagles. He takes an 11-3 record and two saves into the game, along with a 1.60 earned-run average.