When Len Mohney took over the College of the Canyons baseball team this season from Mike Gillespie, now the coach at USC, he knew the expectations would be high. They always have been at Canyons, the defending state champion and winner of three state titles.
Mohney promised nothing, opting merely to challenge an inexperienced team to win its conference championship before thinking about lofty goals such as winning a fourth state tournament.
With that in their minds and their backs to the wall, the Cougars on Saturday beat Oxnard twice, 10-5 and 12-8, to win their seventh straight conference championship, earning the right to appear in the Southern Regionals for the 12th time in 17 years.
"Hey, I got my first one," said Mohney, whose Cougars finished 12-0 at home. "I told everybody at the start of the year that we just wanted to try and win our league and we've done it. The monkey's off my back. It was my first year and I won the title-- we won the title. It wasn't easy. I missed three weeks because of my health, because of surgery, and my mother passed away during the season. So, it's been tough. I'm glad to get this. What else could I ask for?"
A vacation would be nice, but Canyons (30-7-1) isn't ready to turn in its uniforms.
The Cougars found themselves in a must-win situation courtesy of Oxnard's 8-1 win Thursday in the first of a best-of-three series to determine the Western State Conference champions. Canyons will play at either Antelope Valley, San Bernardino or Harbor in the Southern Regionals, May 16-17. Mohney said he may know as early as today.
Against Oxnard, Canyons jumped out to a 9-0 lead by the fifth inning and was hardly threatened. The second--and deciding--game was a bit more interesting. Canyons led, 8-2, in the fifth inning, thanks mostly to Vic Sotelo's second home run of the day and a three-run homer by Ted Weisfuss--both coming in Canyons' six-run fifth. But the Cougars then watched Oxnard (31-7) scramble back to an 8-8 tie in the top of the sixth.
Canyons starter Tim Nedin loaded the bases by walking lead-off hitter Sal Covarrubias, giving up a single to Val Lopez and hitting Mike Runge. Nedin then walked Phil White and Covarrubias scored. Nedin was replaced by freshman Jordan Cook. Normally a starter and making his first relief appearance of the season, Cook walked in two runs before being pulled in favor of Chris Zavatsky.
George Spencer hit Zavatsky's first pitch down the left-field line past a diving Andy Cutchall for a three-run double, tying the game. Zavatsky, the Canyons team captain and a member of last season's title team, began to wonder.
"I've been here three years," said Zavatsky, who red-shirted his first season. "In that time, we've only lost twice at home and we hadn't lost at home this season. After that, I didn't want to go out a loser on the last day, being the one who broke the streak of seven straight conference titles."
Zavatsky (4-0) retired the next three batters, and, luckily for him, the Cougars managed to come back in the bottom of the sixth and score four more runs. Sotelo led off the inning with a double, Andy Cutchall walked, Mike Bible, who hit two home runs in the first game, singled and Mark Gieseke singled, scoring Sotelo.
Roger Nix struck out, then Len Hokanson walked, which scored Cutchall. Alex Vasquez flied out to right and Weisfuss hit a two-run single, scoring Bible and Gieseke to give Canyons its lead, 12-8. Bible finished 5 for 9 with two homers. Sotelo had a homer in both games and a double in the second.
"Everybody is feeling good right now," said Sotelo, a sophomore who caught a pop fly for the final out in Canyons' state title win last season. "We didn't only have to win these two games to win the conference, but we had to win them to get on a roll for the regionals and the state tournament."