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Hills' Fate Improves With Age : Baseball: Now playing at Oklahoma, he has overcome early hardships to meet challenges on the diamond.

HOW THEY'RE DOING. One in a series

March 03, 1994|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a tumultuous freshman year at Esperanza High School for Rich Hills.

His father, Rick Hills, died in a Blythe mining accident in the summer of 1987, just before Rich was to enroll at Moreno Valley Canyon Springs High School. Rich had to move from Riverside, where he lived with his father, to Yorba Linda to live with his mother and stepfather.

What an emotional burden for a 14-year-old, dealing with the loss of a parent and the adjustment to life in a new town, new home and new school.

It was tough to concentrate in class and on the baseball field. Hills, who thought he'd be good enough to play on Esperanza's junior varsity team in 1988, didn't excel in tryouts and felt lucky just to make the freshman team.

But life took a turn for the better on a May afternoon. Hills was one of a handful of lower-level players called up for Esperanza's Southern Section 5-A wild-card playoff game against Westminster.

The thought of playing wasn't in Hills' mind--heck, he didn't even have a varsity jersey--but then third baseman Kevin Webb pulled a hamstring running out a triple in the bottom of the sixth inning.

With Aztec Coach Mike Curran planning to bring flame-throwing second baseman Doug Saunders in to pitch the top of the seventh, there were suddenly two infield vacancies. He told Hills to find a jersey and play catch.

"I was so nervous I couldn't even button the jersey up," Hills said. "I had to have (teammate) Jason Moler do it."

Next thing he knew, Hills was playing third in the top of the seventh. He was the first freshman--and still the only freshman--to play in a varsity game for the Aztecs in Curran's 14 years as coach.

"Don't worry, with Saunders throwing, no one is going to pull the ball," Curran told his frightened freshman.

Clairvoyant, Curran wasn't. With two outs and Esperanza holding a 4-1 lead, a hard grounder headed straight for Hills, who fielded it cleanly--if not calmly--and threw to first to end the game.

"After that, nothing but good things happened for Rich," Curran said. "He was a tremendous player for us."

Hills went on to become a three-year starter for Esperanza, and he recently began his third season as starting shortstop for Oklahoma, which won two of three games in last weekend's Anaheim Hilton & Towers Classic at Cal State Fullerton.

Things might have turned out this way regardless of whether Hills made that play as a freshman, but Hills can't underestimate the boost that experience gave him.

"That's still one of the highlights of my career," said Hills, an All-Big Eight first-team selection last season. "After that game, I felt I gained a lot of respect from a lot of varsity players. They gained confidence in me and I gained confidence in myself."

Hills got more playing time during the Aztecs' 1988 run to the 5-A championship game, where they lost to Diamond Bar, 3-2, in Anaheim Stadium. He became the team's starting third baseman as a sophomore and moved to shortstop his junior year.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Hills developed a reputation as one of Esperanza's hardest working and most consistent players, and he helped the Aztecs win Empire League titles in 1990 and '91. The '91 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation before losing to Long Beach Millikan in the 5-A semifinals.

But while several of his 1991 teammates were heavily recruited by Division I schools and scouted by professional teams, Hills couldn't seem to turn any heads.

The drawbacks: Hills didn't have great speed, and he might have been a little overweight.

"I'd talk to college guys and say I have a damn good shortstop and they'd say, 'Sure, sure,' " Curran said. "It was one of those deals when you're wondering, 'Geez, what am I seeing that no one else is seeing? Or maybe I'm not seeing him right. Or maybe he's not as good as I think.' "

Hills had decided to attend Cypress College until Oklahoma Coach Larry Cochell called in May.

Cochell, who coached at Fullerton from 1988-90, had told a Southern California scout he needed a shortstop, and the scout gave him Hills' name. Cochell called Curran, who gave Hills a ringing endorsement, and the following week, Cochell came out to see for himself.

The Sooner coach, who took over a last-place program in 1991, liked what he saw. A week after the season, Hills was in Norman for a recruiting visit. He liked the town, the campus and loved the baseball facilities. He felt comfortable with the Oklahoma coaching staff.

Cochell offered Hills a scholarship, the only Division I coach to do so. Hills accepted.

Hello, Big Eight.

Hello, Big Time.

"I watched great teams like Oklahoma State on TV, and it was a little intimidating coming out of high school," Hills said. "I thought all the pitchers would be throwing 90 m.p.h. on the black. But I found out during my freshman year that I could play here, and I could make a name here."

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