The Channel League was as dominant last season as a tall left-hander with command of four pitches. Several teams enjoyed fine seasons--Rio Mesa, Ventura, Hueneme, Buena, even Oxnard, which won more games than it had in 15 years.
But like the left-hander who loses the edge on his fastball, the league is getting rocked this year.
Chatsworth--a top San Fernando Valley school--has defeated Ventura, Rio Mesa and Hueneme by a combined score of 44-9. Among the five Ventura County teams in the Channel League, only Buena had a winning record at the beginning of the week. And the Bulldogs are rebounding from two season-opening losses.
Several teams--Ventura and Oxnard, most notably--are young and their coaches are optimistic they will improve by the time league play begins in earnest after the spring break. Dos Pueblos, behind pitcher Chris Cloch, is the best of the three Santa Barbara-area schools.
A look at each county Channel League team:
Buena (13-8-1 overall in 1988, 9-4-1 in league play)--The Bulldogs are favored to finish on top by every coach in the league. Coach Stan Hedegard is tempered in his evaluation, but can't help himself at times. "We have the most depth I've seen in a while," Hedegard said.
Anchoring the team is shortstop Tom Lunsford, a senior and three-year starter who has a lifetime batting average better than .400. Lunsford is nine for 18 this season and has dramatically improved his defense, which was considered a weakness.
Lunsford is not the only Bulldog bashing the ball. Matt Anderson, a left-handed hitter who pitches and plays first base and the outfield, is 12 for 22 with two home runs and five doubles. Anderson also has 15 strikeouts in 10 innings and a 1.86 earned-run average.
Part of the depth Hedegard speaks of is a pitching staff that includes Jason Isaacs, Sam Arroyo and Robbie Weeks, in addition to Anderson.
Isaacs, a hard-throwing junior right-hander, has 19 strikeouts in 10 innings. Arroyo, a junior in his second varsity season, is a finesse pitcher who was 5-1 last year. Weeks and Isaacs were the stoppers on a Buena junior varsity that was 18-4 last year.
Hedegard, who is carrying a roster of 20 that includes 13 juniors, believes his team will improve as the year wears on.
"Right now we're scrambling for an identity," said Hedegard, whose team began the week 3-2-1. "But if we're on top at midseason, look out."
Hueneme (20-7-1, 10-3-1)--Hueneme came out of nowhere to earn the league's third playoff berth last season and nobody is counting out a repeat.
"You know Reg Welker will field a competitive team every year at Hueneme," said Dan Smith, the Ventura coach.
Although the Vikings began the week 2-3 and are still searching to replace the leadership of the graduated Gabe Diaz and Joel Gaxiola, Welker sees potential.
"We can be in contention for a playoff spot," he said. "We've got to improve hitting the ball."
Pitching is the strong suit. Lupe Herrera was 7-1 last season and could usually be relied on for extended outings. Julio Gonzales, a transfer from Channel Islands who was 2-4 with four saves last season, is also in the rotation. Steve Hernandez, Reyno Ortega and Alred Anaya round out the pitching staff.
The Vikings are also strong defensively. Anaya, a senior co-captain, batted .290 last season and has made a smooth transition from second to third base. Outfielders Carlos Cardenas and Constantino Lopez have great range.
"Carlos is a phenomenal defensive player," Welker said. "He attacks the baseball."
Ortega, a senior who did not start last year, has hit well and will play in the outfield.
Rio Mesa (20-7-1, 11-2-1)--To repeat as league champions, the Spartans need to find an able replacement for all-county pitcher Bobby Ayala, who posted 12 wins.
Coach Rich Duran is trying out a bevy of right-handers, including Jon Rust, David Soliz, Frank Tinoco and Henry Wilson. Left-hander Anthony Espinoza is also a solid prospect, but he has had arm trouble.
Dmitri Young, a sophomore slugger who has moved from the outfield to third base, and catcher Steve Soliz are the team's best players. Young, 15 years old, batted .420 last season (37 for 88) with 16 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs.
Soliz batted .355 last season and is a solid defensive catcher. The rest of the infield consists of Carlos Rios at first, returning starter David Frazier at second and Shea Freeman at shortstop.
Daric Dicus, Carlos Cendejas and Tom Deardorf are the outfielders for the Spartans, who were 2-3 beginning this week.
Ventura (20-7-1, 10-3-1)--All nine starters and the designated-hitter from last year's team graduated, leaving Coach Dan Smith with a diamond full of holes.
"I've got kids still trying to find themselves," said Smith, whose team is 1-4.
The versatile Harvey Jones, a senior right-hander who pitches, plays first base and the outfield, is an exception. Other pitchers include left-handers Gary Myers and Joe Devlin and right-hander Rick Pearn, a transfer from Canada.