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Ecklund Mixed a Winning Formula

June 09, 1988|MIKE HISERMAN | Times Staff Writer

The belief had been stressed to members of the Fillmore High baseball team all season long: Championships, Coach Tom Ecklund said, were won with pitching and defense. The hitting eventually would come along.

Ecklund was unaware, but every time he expressed this tenet, he also was describing precisely how his team would emerge victorious in last Friday's Southern Section 1-A Division title game.

As usual, Fillmore received a strong pitching performance from Willie Leighton. The Flashes also played good defense--they committed only two errors in four playoff games--and pushed across enough runs in the late innings to defeat Crossroads, 4-2, at Blair Field in Long Beach.

"Pitching, defense, and the hitting will come," that's what Coach told us from Day 1, and that's exactly what happened," said Leighton, who finished the season with a 15-0 record.

Crossroads, the defending 1-A champion, led, 2-0, after 3 1/2 innings, but Fillmore scored three times in the fourth. Brad Edmonds, a light-hitting junior second baseman, drove in two runs with a two-out, bases-loaded single.

Fillmore (21-2), added an insurance run in the sixth inning on a run-scoring single by Tony Cervantes.

Leighton, who was pitching with a sore arm, gave up three singles and three walks in the first three innings but pitched to only one batter more than the minimum in the final four frames.

"I could have done better," he said, "but we pulled through. I knew we'd come back. I had faith in the team. They had never let me down so I knew we'd score. And once we got the lead, I did what I had to do."

Jaime Alamillo, the Flashes' standout third baseman, attributed the slow start offensively to title-game butterflies. "It was a scary feeling," he said. "It was a real nice field and everything. I'm sure everyone took a big swallow when we walked out there. It took us a while to loosen up, but we knew we could score. We just needed that first one.

"Once we get ahead, we're tough."

Leighton, who had 41 strikeouts in Fillmore's first three playoff games, was not his overpowering self. He struck out only five while trying to ignore discomfort in his throwing arm.

"It was a sharp pain, real quick, now and then," he said. "It was just something I had to work through. It was the championship game and no way was I going to let it stop me. From the time you first make the varsity a championship is what you strive for."

Fillmore has won four Southern Section baseball titles, but this was the first since 1978. And one key person in particular has played a role in all four: Ecklund, who was so confident in his team that he had championship shirts ready to distribute within minutes of the game's end.

"Winning championships never seems to get old," Ecklund said. "These kids deserved it. They did everything we asked of them."

Said Leighton: "The joy I felt when we won it is hard to describe. I guess I felt honored that we had done it, for the team and for Mr. Ecklund. It was great to see his eyes light up.

"He's a great coach who inspired me a lot. He worked hard with us and we all look up to him for what he knows."

Ecklund was successful in creating a close-knit atmosphere in a situation where many coaches might have failed.

Leighton, a senior left-hander with a microscopic earned-run average, was publicly accorded much of the credit for the team's success. But Ecklund continually stressed a team concept and any jealousies that might have split the team never developed.

"Our cheer before every game was "Together!" Alamillo said. "We grew like a family. Everyone knows Willie is an excellent pitcher, but everyone also knows that if we didn't play defense behind him he wouldn't be where he is."

Where Leighton is now is the position of favorite when it comes time to award 1-A player-of-the-year honors.

"That would be great. But if it does happen, it won't really be mine, it'll be theirs, too," Leighton said in reference to his teammates. "It'll be like the championship--for all of us."

In the meantime, Leighton and company will bask in the glory of their accomplishments.

"Talk about having your head high," Alamillo said about his first day on campus after the championship game. "What a graduation present. It was probably the most exciting time of life, coming back to school wearing my championship T-shirt."

Alamillo had competed for Fillmore's Tri-Valley League champion cross-country team in the fall. He also had played for an all-star baseball team that won an international tournament in the Bahamas over the summer. But this, he said, was the ultimate in excitement.

"With the all-star team I was playing with guys I had known for 10 days. This time it's with guys I've known all my life. There's a difference," he said. "When this game was over there weren't a lot of handshakes. There were a lot of hugs."

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