Two years ago, James Ferguson of Servite High School stepped to the mound for his first varsity start.
Ferguson felt a touch of pride. Only a sophomore, he had just been called up from the junior varsity to help the struggling varsity staff and had been chosen to face Mater Dei, which, at 19-1, was the top-ranked team in the Southern Section.
But pride soon turned to panic.
Powerful. Unstoppable. Just plain awesome. The words he had heard about Mater Dei rang in his ears.
"It was the scariest moment of my life," he said. "I didn't know why I was up there."
The 9-0 record he had put together on the junior varsity didn't help him much against the Monarchs. He gave up two runs in the first inning, managed to get through the second without giving up a run, but came unglued in the third.
All control seemed lost. His curveball went flat. His fastball stalled. Ferguson gave up four runs and walked four batters before being replaced. He did not pitch in either of the team's two final games.
"I was just overtaken," Ferguson said. "I was too nervous. They were supposed to be the greatest team ever--USA Today said they were No. 1 in the country. I couldn't relax at all. That game taught me a lot.
"I learned to stop defeating myself before I went out there. Basically, it's the law of baseball. Once you lose, it isn't the end of the season. You take a season game by game."
Ferguson learned quickly. He was 5-0 with seven saves and a 1.32 earned-run average as a junior. And this season, he is 8-0 with one save and a 1.22 ERA. He has 49 strikeouts and 25 walks in 53 innings for the Friars, who are 9-1 in the Angelus League and 17-3 overall.
After his junior year, Ferguson received a lot of attention from scouts and college coaches. A scout for the Houston Astros had seen him earn a save against St. Paul and the next fall offered Ferguson a spot on a winter league team that included several other top high school players.
The team traveled all over Southern California, playing against winter league teams and colleges such as Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Los Angeles. Ferguson allowed one hit in three innings against USC.
"Playing against those college guys gave me a lot more confidence," he said.
"I felt that now, if there was any big situation or tough games, I would have the ability to go out there and win. I knew I wasn't just going out there, hoping for luck, and maybe win on accident. And after that, it (this season) was pretty much a piece of cake."
Servite Coach Mike McNary said: "James is mature far beyond his senior year of high school. And his outlook on life is far beyond his peers'. He doesn't take it all too seriously, but looks at it in broad perspective. He realizes that every day he's out pitching, there are 10,000 kids across the country pitching too."
Ferguson's scrapbook is filled with letters from such colleges as USC and Miami. But don't ask him where he's going.
"I'm really not thinking about it yet," Ferguson said. "People say you got to sign early and or you'll be left behind, but I'm not worrying about them (scholarship offers). I have to think of our season. I want to help the team as much as I can now."
Last month in the Las Vegas tournament, Ferguson helped the Friars defeat Valley High of Las Vegas, ranked 16th in the nation by USA Today at the time. He was anything but awed.
"To be truthful, I thought nothing before the game," he said. " . . . I just felt so comfortable. Really lax, (though) not to the point of goofing off."
Ferguson threw a two-hitter and won, 3-0.
"The young man was very impressive," said Don Kennedy, Valley assistant coach. "He just kept his composure throughout the game. He used a fastball, change, and his curveball had exceptional movement. He definitely had something going for him."
Said Ferguson: "It's not like life or death for me anymore as it was against Mater Dei that first time. Against Valley, I just relaxed and pitched."
He makes it sound easy.