Having guided Fillmore High to the Southern Section championship game six times, Tom Ecklund is the last word in finals among Ventura County baseball coaches.
But he has difficulty finding the words to describe the achievement of this year's Flashes, who meet Beaumont in the 1-A Division final Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Blair Field in Long Beach.
Ecklund speaks with the wide-eyed wonderment of a rookie coach sailing along on a dream season.
"I'm in total amazement that we're back in the championship game," Ecklund said. "It's really hard to comprehend. It's hard to understand how this is happening."
Fillmore slid to second-place in the Tri-Valley League but has slipped past three playoff opponents, including Aquinas, 3-2, Tuesday at Moorpark College in a semifinal game.
Who are these news Flashes?
Are they the same Flashes who were decimated by graduation after winning the 1-A title last season?
The same Flashes whose best player was kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons?
The same Flashes who start two sophomores?
Ecklund is right. It is hard to believe.
Hard to believe that Brad Edmonds, who won his 11th game against two losses by scattering 11 hits and walking zero in a complete-game effort against Aquinas, had never pitched before this season.
Hard to believe that the team that lost Southern Section Player of the Year Willie Leighton, et. al. , could be brashly bashing at the door of another championship.
"We played a lot of kids this year who hadn't played before on the varsity level and even the ones who had experience have played different positions," Ecklund said.
The gang of unlikely heroes are in a position to become champions, which would be familiar for Ecklund. Since becoming coach in 1973, he has led Fillmore to the finals in 1975, '76, '77, '79 and '88, winning the title in every instance but 1979.
The legacy of success obviously has rubbed off on the latest group.
"Some of the kids who played last year are around, encouraging these guys," Ecklund said. "They feel it. They really have done a good job. I'm super-proud of them.
"These kids have an attitude that they want to win, they want to be the best."
Such resolve was needed against Aquinas (17-7-1), which took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and shut out Fillmore until the fourth. The Flashes loaded the bases in the first with none out but did not score, then left on two more in the third.
"We were overswinging, trying too hard," said Ecklund, whose team left 12 runners on base.
Although Fillmore scored once in the fourth when Robby Ybarra walked with the bases loaded, the Flashes again left three runners aboard.
The persistence paid off, however, as Chad Van Winkle singled down the left-field line in the fifth to bring home Rory Maus and tie the score, 2-2.
The winning run scored an inning later on a rally that began with two out. Ybarra singled, Edmonds and Maus walked and Tony Cervantez--after hitting a ball over the fence barely foul--hit a grounder through shortstop to score Ybarra.
Aquinas had a runner on second with two out in the seventh when Fillmore second baseman George Frias preserved the victory by going to his knees to stop a ground ball up the middle by Miguel McQueen and throwing him out by a half step.
"These are kids who haven't quit," Ecklund said. "I told them before the game that there are a lot of champions in the world, but real champions are ones who play the entire game, from start to finish.
"That sums up this game."
Edmonds, who threw only 91 pitches against Aquinas, told the coach he would be ready on two days rest. Who can doubt him? Edmonds has pitched all three playoff games.