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Placentia--Ever the Hotbed of Sports

August 13, 1989|ELLIOTT A. ALMOND | Elliott A. Almond is a Times staff writer.

The day Michael Chang won this summer's French Open tennis tournament, my father turned 75.

This unremarkable coincidence escaped me for about the time it takes the cat-footed Chang to reach a drop volley. You see, I always thought Dad was the best tennis player in Placentia.

Of course 20 years ago, when I was weaned on the cracked concrete courts at Chang's Valencia High School, there was not much competition. Though stricken with tendinitis in the elbow, often referred to as tennis elbow, Dad still had a wicked serve and deft skills at the base line. Sure, his best days from the University of Chicago were behind him, but in Placentia he was as good as any who played on the public courts.

As good as any whom we saw because in the mid-'60s, tennis was about as popular in Placentia as ice skating.

Dad changed that in a small way. He allowed us minions--suburban urchins all--to follow him to the courts and try our luck at a few swipes at the fuzzy balls. Most of us were not any good, but heck, we were still in junior high school. Eventually, this cadre formed part of the El Dorado High School tennis team, which had the distinction of being the school's first varsity team sport to win a league championship and compete in the Southern Section playoffs. When the team came up against San Marino High in the quarterfinals, its luck ended against a team composed of players from private clubs.

We had a club player attending our school, but she was not allowed to compete on a boys' team. Still, Placentians paid homage to Lori Sherbeck back then as if she were a French Open champion.

Much ado was made over an article in the now-defunct Placentia Courier one day, heralding Sherbeck as the city's best tennis player. Perhaps she had earned the status as one of the country's highest-ranked junior players. But one of my friends on the high school team proclaimed: "She's not the best in the city. Neither is your dad. I am."

The remark left me in a funk, as the crumbling of any deity would, but when recounting the conversation to Dad, he just laughed, the kind of knowing spirit that quickly dispelled gloom.

But we'll never know who was the best. Dad did not bother to seriously play us, and Lori Sherbeck was confined to Girls Athletic Assn. activity, as well as U.S. Tennis Assn. junior tournaments.

But I haven't changed my posture. I told my friend then and reiterate now: If Lori had played on the boys' team she would have been the No. 1 player. A couple of years later, her younger brothers, David and Eric, earned that distinction during their court careers.

Today much is being made of Placentia's prowess as a veritable sports mill because of two teens who have that special charismatic quality. El Dorado's Janet Evans had a tremendous performance in swimming competition at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and Chang's never-say-die perseverance on the red clay of Roland Garros and at Wimbledon has been an inspiration to anyone down two sets to love and ready to throw in the racket.

The burgeoning tract-home community of 37,000 has been injected with new-found enthusiasm by embracing the glory of the international successes.

But tracking the city's history recalls some achievements that in their time were considered as monumental as Evans' and Chang's. Dan Kenney, who recently returned to Placentia with a wife and daughter after a 15-year hiatus, was recalling the exploits of Guy Antley, who in the early 1970s was considered one of the world's best water polo goalies.

When the P in Placentia stood for pleasant, when the sweet aroma of orange blossoms permeated the air, when Palm Avenue was the only road to the outside, we revered anyone who was so athletically inclined.

Placentia would do well to remember Antley; the DeWeeses, Bob and Jim, who both briefly played in the National Basketball Assn.; Ronny Moors, Valencia's sky-bound pole vaulter, and too many other young heroes over the years to recount here.

It's bizarre that John Henry Cyrus III, Valencia's tennis coach, is quoted in Orange County newspapers adding his insight to Chang's accomplishments. Perhaps John is too humble to let reporters in on the secret.

There was a time when he was Placentia's best-known athlete as the star of the Valencia Tigers football team.

The rest of the world just didn't know it.

But I knew it, just as I knew my Dad reigned on the concrete courts.

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