Ray O'Connor has coached successful baseball and football teams at Taft High off and on since the school first opened in 1960, but the program he's taking over this year is as good or better than any he's inherited.
O'Connor is replacing Carl Kratzle, who coached the Taft golf team for the past 14 years before retiring after last season. All O'Connor has to do is duplicate the success of one of the City Section's most dominant programs in any sport. Under Kratzle, Taft won five City 5-A titles. During Kratzle's tenure, Taft produced several players who competed at the Division I level in college, including Duffy Waldorf, an All-American at UCLA who is currently on the PGA Tour.
Kratzle left some big spikes to fill, and O'Connor knows it. But O'Connor has had his share of talented athletes along the way. He coached Robin Yount, now of the Milwaukee Brewers, when he was the baseball coach.
"Carl did a great job here," O'Connor said, "And I'm really working my fanny off to keep the kids moving in that same direction."
Although Taft lost the City championship to 5-A League rival Palisades last year, the program is not bereft of talent. Seniors Mark Riches and Danny Greenberg, who both carry 2-handicaps, return. John Hartung, who is recovering from a recent broken hand, broke 80 in his first outing of the year. Juniors Brian Makemson and David Solomon are among the starting seven, O'Connor said. Others fighting for places on the starting varsity team are P.J. Stewart, Scott Hooper and Marshall Solomon.
"We have four, possibly five, players that could play Division I golf after they graduate," O'Connor said. "We've got five guys here that can hit it 300 yards. It kind of makes you want to vomit, they're so good. Some of these guys are teaching me the game."
Long on talent, long off the tee. How long will it be before Taft wins another title?
"Carl tells me these guys have the talent to take it all," O'Connor says. "All we have to do is do it."
Westlake, which won the Southern Section title last season, also figures to be tough to beat. The Warriors, who have won 41 straight dual matches, have a balanced team that includes a freshman, two juniors and three seniors. "As strong a team as we had last year, this team has the potential to be the best ever," said Westlake Coach Lorin Maygren, the only coach in the school's nine-year history. Leading the team are juniors Jimmy Chang and Chris Zambri, who has made a fast recovery from open-heart surgery last year. Zambri's older brother, Mike, is one of the team's seniors. Charlie Wi, a freshman, also will play among the team's top six.