As the first full week of California Collegiate Athletic Assn. baseball unfolds, coaches in what is thought to be the toughest Division II baseball conference in the country see Cal State Dominguez Hills in the driver's seat.
If that is true, says Toros Coach Andy Lopez, then his team better have seat belts, crash helmets and lots of bandages and aspirin on hand. As coach of the defending league champ and the nation's sixth-rated team, Lopez's crowned head is certainly uneasy, despite the Toros' 15-7 start.
As Dominguez Hills takes a 2-1 conference mark into Friday's 2:30 p.m. game at Cal State Northridge, Lopez isn't looking for extra pressure. He has come to praise his opponents, not to bury them.
"I think the conference will be tougher than the last couple of years, believe it or not," Lopez said this week. "The last couple of years there was a team or two that stumbled."
So far this season, two of their three conference games have gone into extra innings.
"It's a nice compliment to be picked (to finish first), but last year's team had been with me three years and knew what the league was about. It's a 30-game war. We're in the process of the guys figuring out every game will be like the ones we've already played.
"Pomona is doing well (Cal Poly Pomona is off to a 4-0 start). I think Northridge will be tough, could be there at the end. UC Riverside is tough. Cal State L.A. is dangerous. I like to include us. If we play consistently day in and day out, I like to think we could deserve to be there at the end."
In his fifth season at Dominguez Hills, Lopez brings perspective to his observations. He's 120-114-2 overall and 60-60 in CCAA games. But over the last two seasons and this year, his record is 80-52-1 overall and 41-22 in the CCAA. It's a conference that requires some growing up.
"If we have a weakness, it's our inexperience, replacing two All-Americans (shortstop Craig Grebeck and second baseman Mike Brocki, both graduated, who earned All-America honors last year)."
Lopez's worries aren't so much lack of talent as lack of experience and depth.
An arm injury has knocked catcher Mike McCarthy out for the year and remaining catcher Chris Plank was banged up in a game last week. He won't catch non-conference games. Outfielder Jon Beuder broke his hand last fall and returned to the lineup three weeks ago. The infield is also thin in numbers and the team has less speed and power than a year ago.
The talent includes outfielder Fred Hanker, the top power hitter in school history; shortstop Mike Perryman, starting pitchers Mike Asprey and Brian Ayers and a good bullpen led by newcomer Chris Haslock and veteran Dennis Brady.
Hanker, a senior, ended last season with a 16-game hitting streak and is hot again, batting .424 over his last eight games. He's hitting .322 and leads the team with 5 home runs and 28 runs batted in. He has 160 career RBI, 10 short of the school record set by Ed Packard from 1975-78. He has knocked in 112 runs in 106 games the last two seasons. Hanker has five game-winning RBI this season.
"If you watched him in practice you'd probably cut him," Lopez said. "He's such a gamer, he responds to pressure situations. He's the most productive hitter I've ever had. He does things nobody can coach. He just knows how to play the game. I think he's a legitimate All-American, and I've had a few so I know what it takes."
Lopez also thinks Beuder has All-American capabilities. In 14 games since returning from the hand injury the senior is batting .390 with 3 homers and 15 RBI. The other leading hitter is Perryman, who is solid at short and is hitting .397, top mark among the regulars. "He's replacing a first-team All-American, and that's kind of tough," Lopez said. "He's doing a good job."
Plank, who caught 40 of 55 games as a junior, is hitting .284 with 10 RBI.
One of the newcomers who has emerged is first baseman Jeff Sears, a Long Beach City College transfer. The junior hits behind Hanker, putting pressure on him to protect the team's slugger. He has responded with a .319 average and 14 RBI.
Asprey, a senior right-hander who walked on last season and produced a 5-2 record, is 3-2 with a 3.29 earned-run average this year and has pitched more than twice as many innings as any teammate. Ayers, a senior right-hander who was 8-6 last season, is 2-0.
Haslock, a transfer from Valley College where he was a junior college All-American, has pitched in 11 games, winning three and saving four with a 1.77 ERA. Brady has gotten off shakily but is 1-0 in eight appearances. The submariner Haslock has made the Toros almost a sure lock in the late innings. The team in 12-1 in games in which it held the lead in the seventh inning. Lopez said Haslock turned down the San Francisco Giants last year but will probably be drafted again this year.
For all Lopez's caveats, the Toros have the same record as a year ago. "Up to now we've had some timely hitting. They play to their potential and they're playing within their capabilities," he said. "In that sense it's a good situation to be in."