Before the baseball season began, Beverly Hills High Coach Bill Erickson picked his team to finish in fifth place in the Bay League. He struck out as a prognosticator.
Beverly Hills won its third consecutive Bay League championship and advanced to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
In the first round of the 5-A Division playoffs, the Normans (17-6 overall, 13-2 in league play) will play host to the winner of Tuesday's wild-card game between Servite and Katella at 3 p.m. Friday.
Erickson had good reason to think his team would not do well this season. Several top players from last year's league champions, including shortstop Chris Chandler, pitcher Robbie Welles, catcher Reed Aljain and relief pitcher Steve Belkin, had graduated.
"They say you have to be strong up the middle," Erickson said. He began the season with only two proven players in the middle of the diamond: senior pitcher D.J. Sutton and senior center fielder Robert Holmes, but both had strong seasons.
Sutton, who plays second base or designated hitter when not pitching, had a 10-0 record with an earned-run average of 0.69. In 64 innings, he struck out 56 hitters and walked only four. He also had a .415 batting average.
Holmes, an excellent outfielder with a powerful throwing arm, batted .385 with four home runs.
But the two players received a lot of help from teammates, including some with little experience.
Senior right fielder Allen Fischer led the team with a .475 batting average and seven homers. Senior Bryan Urda, an outfielder, relief pitcher and designated hitter, batted .427. Junior left fielder Ziv Gottlieb, who also plays football and basketball, batted .364.
The team batting average was a resounding .366.
When Sutton was pitching, seniors Scott Myers and Jason Goldberg rotated at second base. The starting first baseman is junior John Beradino, son of former major league infielder Johnny Beradino, long an actor in daytime television.
Junior Matt Humiston has filled in capably at shortstop for Chandler, who played this year at Moorpark College. Junior Mike Rappaport, who had been the starting third baseman, was batting .500 until he broke his ankle and was lost for the season. Reserve outfielder Adam Dave stepped in at third for Rappaport.
Junior Dean Styne and Urda helped fill the gap left by Welles, now at Arizona State, and Belkin, second in the Southern Section record book with 17 career saves. (The leader is Eddie Marquez, who had 20 saves for Bosco Tech from 1987 through 1989.) Steyne was 5-2 with a 1.71 ERA, and Urda went 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA.
Junior catcher Ben Alexander helped make up for the loss of Aljain, who played for UC Berkeley this season.
Contributions were made by others on the squad, which Erickson said may not have been the "best as far as talent goes" of any of the teams he has coached in his eight seasons at Beverly Hills.
"I think that this group of guys is kind of a bunch of overachievers," he said. "Other coaches in the league thought that this might not be a team that would be in contention."
Sutton's overpowering pitching was a binding force for his less experienced teammates. Erickson said that his players made only 12% of their errors this season when the 6-1, 168-pounder was on the mound.
"(Sutton) just keeps things flowing along. He throws strikes and everybody is involved. That helps the kids stay on their toes and play good defense. And when you make only 12% of your errors behind your best pitcher, that's going to win you some ball games."
Sutton pitched a one-hitter last week as the Normans beat Santa Monica, 2-0, but Steyne and Urda were ineffective in a 6-5 loss to Santa Monica in the last game of the regular season.
Beverly Hills did not play particularly well behind Steyne and Urda in the loss to Santa Monica. But Erickson said that he had used several reserves to give them some experience and had rested some of his regulars.
"It was not exactly one of our grandest days of the year, but I was getting us ready for the playoffs," Erickson said. "Still I didn't like to end on a sour note like that, especially when we were making so many mental mistakes. That's scary."
He said that his players were throwing to the wrong base, not executing on defense and not getting the bat on the ball when that was necessary. "It was a pretty lackluster effort as far as the cerebral part of the game goes. That's for sure."
The rash of mental errors against Santa Monica was surprising because Beverly Hills has some pretty cerebral players.
For example, team batting leader Fischer is also a heavy hitter in the classroom. His grade-point average, weighted to reflect performance in college advanced placement courses, is 4.25 on a four-point scale.
Erickson said that Fischer is the antithesis of high school players who are pushed by their parents to succeed in the usually vain hope that the youngsters will make it to the major leagues.
He said that Fischer will attend the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania next fall and expects to play baseball for Penn.
"Allen will play in college, and that will be it," Erickson said. "But he may end up owning a team, instead of having to play for it."