Maybe out of desperation, maybe just as a diversion, Mike Scyphers, Simi Valley High's baseball coach, switched roles at his team's most recent practice. Instead of hitting infield, Scyphers yielded that job to senior catcher Tim Laker and headed out to play second base.
Laker eyed the 34-year-old coach and rapped a hard grounder his way. The next thing Scyphers knew his left ankle throbbed in pain.
"The first ball he hit me went 1 1/2 inches under my glove and hit me right in front of the ankle bone," Scyphers said with a laugh after Friday's practice. "I had to suck it up and not let them know it hurt, but they really got on me. I heard every cliche I ever yelled at them. 'Keep your head in there. Get your glove down.' Stuff like that."
Scyphers didn't mind serving as the object of his players' abuse, figuring it was a small price to pay if it helped divert attention from the problem at hand--a three-game Marmonte League losing streak. For the past two weeks, nothing much has been amusing for the Pioneers.
After an 8-0 start in league play, Simi Valley suffered back-to-back shutout losses, the first time that's happened in Scyphers' nine years with the program. Simi Valley ended its scoring drought against Channel Islands on Wednesday but not the losing streak, falling from first place with a 12-7 defeat.
Searching for ways to stop the slide, Scyphers gave his team the day off Thursday and shook up the infield drill Friday. But nothing seems to work. Simi Valley's losing streak reached four straight with a 7-3 nonleague defeat to Alemany on Saturday in a game in which Scyphers was ejected for arguing with the umpire.
Simi Valley's swoon underscores a trend in recent years. Two years ago, Simi Valley started the season with 18 straight wins and was ranked No. 1 in the state. But the team won just six of its last 11 games and lost in the second round of the Southern Section playoffs.
Last year's team was ranked No. 1 in the nation after the Colonial tournament in Florida but failed to win the Southern Section title, losing in the semifinal to Esperanza.
Simi Valley started this season with a 14-1 mark but has played under .500 since, losing five of its past nine games for an 18-6 record. Part of the reason for the late-season fade may be Scyphers' ambitious scheduling. Simi Valley plays in the El Segundo tournament at the start of the season and has played in Las Vegas and Florida tournaments the last three years.
"We put a lot of emphasis on the El Segundo tournament and we don't have to put any emphasis on the out-of-state tournaments because our players get sky high for those," he said. "We want to play the toughest competition we can. But emotionally we may be peaking too soon, which may be hurting us physically."
So, does Scyphers plan any changes?
"I probably won't do anything differently," he said. "We're not getting out of the El Segundo tournament and we'll probably go back to Florida next year."
Add Simi Valley: Despite the recent slide, Simi Valley is assured of a playoff spot and can still win the league title with a victory over Royal on Wednesday coupled with a Westlake loss to Camarillo. Scyphers insists the recent losses haven't ruined an otherwise surprising season.
The Pioneers lost the core of last year's team to graduation and started 1986 with only two players with significant varsity experience: senior Tim Laker and junior Scott Sharts. Of the 10 players who start, including the designated-hitter, eight are underclassmen. This was supposed to be a down year for Simi Valley.
"This is a good high school baseball team but we don't have the talent like we did the past two years," Scyphers said. "Some people are wondering what we have done lately, but I thought if we went 15-10 it would be a successful season. If you told me at the start of the season we'd have a chance to win 20 games, I'd take it."
Silent treatment: While Simi Valley has stumbled, Westlake (13-9-1, 8-2-1) has moved to unprecedented heights, clinching a playoff berth, the first in the school's nine years of baseball. Westlake, which finished last a year ago in Coach Dennis Judd's first season, is one win away from the league title.
It hasn't been easy for Westlake, which turned its season around after dropping under .500 with two losses in the Thousand Oaks tournament during the spring vacation. Westlake has won six of seven since, thanks in part to pitcher John Chiaramonte's five straight victories and Judd's silent treatment.
"We seemed to be one small play away from winning and I didn't think we were mentally prepared for our games," Judd said.
Consequently, he instituted a new rule. At every team meeting on game day, players must be in uniform and seated in his classroom at exactly 1:40 p.m. for five minutes of absolute silence.
"Instead of talking about girlfriends or what they're going to do after the game, everybody sits in silence," he said. "There is no talking whatsoever. I had to do something to get the team's mental preparation where it belonged and have the players' heads in the ballgame. Nobody has violated the rule yet and it seems to work."