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1995 BASEBALL PREVIEW : Change in the Lineup : With Esperanza Gone, the Empire League Race Has a new Look

March 07, 1995|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1995 baseball preview begins on a sad note.

Esperanza is no longer in the Empire League. Coaches throughout the league don't know what to say.

"We're not playing for third-place anymore," Cypress Coach Mark Steinert said.

That's right, the Esperanza-El Dorado logjam is no more. Esperanza moves to the Sunset League, El Dorado remains king of the hill in the Empire League. Two of Southern California's top programs have been separated.

"It's going to be a strange year without them," Katella Coach Tim McMenamin said.

Yes, change is always hard to accept.

"We lost two of three to Esperanza most years," McMenamin said.

Well, maybe it's not so hard to accept.

*

New frontier: Esperanza will have to make do slugging it out with Fountain Valley this season. Not a pleasant prospect.

The Barons were the first top-seeded team to win the Southern Section Division I championship since Lakewood in 1970. Fountain Valley returns six key players from the team that defeated Lakewood, 3-2, in the final.

The roll call: pitcher Chris Ponchak was 8-2, pitcher Luke Hudson was 8-1, outfielder Kevin Burford hit .301, outfielder Matt Roman threw out the potential tying run at the plate for the last out in the title game, shortstop Dan Keller was the rock of the infield and second baseman Craig Ritter did not make an error in 31 games.

Add reserves Jeff Hoppie (.375), Vic Ortega (.471) and Joe Rosek (.448).

And add Greg Hanoian (.427), who transferred from Edison.

No county team has won back-to-back Division I titles. But keep a spot clear in the Fountain Valley trophy case.

*

A Top 10 primer: 1. Fountain Valley; 2. Mater Dei; 3. El Dorado; 4. Canyon; 5. Esperanza; 6. Trabuco Hills; 7. Katella; 8. Brea Olinda; 9. Sonora; 10. Westminster.

*

Breaking up is hard to do: Other Empire League coaches may be a tad giddy, but for El Dorado Coach Steve Gullotti and Esperanza Coach Mike Curran, life will never be the same.

For years, they have had the most exciting, and usually friendliest, rivalry in Orange County. Now all they have is their friendship.

The two played against each other in high school--Curran at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul and Gullotti at Whittier Sierra High.

"They didn't have to use a bus when they played us," Curran said. "They'd just walk out the back gate to get to our school. That's how close the schools were."

Curran and Gullotti were teammates at Rio Hondo College. They became coaches in the Empire League the same year.

*

America's most wanted: Canyon outfielder Eric Valent and Sunny Hills shortstop Josh Hochgesang are considered the county's top high school seniors, according to Baseball America.

Valent, a senior, is ranked 19th in the nation. He hit .426 with six home runs and 36 runs batted in. The Comanches have been to the Division II quarterfinals the last three seasons and could go further behind Valent, who has signed with UCLA.

Hochgesang, a senior, is ranked 24th by Baseball America and is the main reason the Lancers are co-favorites to win the Freeway League. He hit more than .400 last season.

*

All that jazz: Valent spent the summer touring with the Junior Olympic team. The games were fun but . . .

"We had only one tape player and only one tape," Valent said.

Kenny G.

"I liked a couple of his songs when the tour started," Valent said. "But I hated all of it by the end of the summer."

You needed all summer to decide that?

Still, guess going to a store and buying another tape never occurred to them.

*

Back to that Eldo-Espo thing: Curran and Gullotti's friendship has lasted, with one week off each year.

The Aztecs and Golden Hawks always had back-to-back games in recent seasons. It was the only week during the season their coaches did not talk.

"That may be an exaggeration," Gullotti said.

"Well, I don't know if that's true," Curran said.

Gentlemen, that tidbit came from your wives.

*

Velcro glove: Tustin junior outfielder Rick Gonzalez catches anything he gets within sight of these days. But it wasn't always so.

"He was terrible as a freshman," Coach Tim O'Donoghue said. "If it wasn't a routine fly, he couldn't catch it. Even if it was a routine fly, he still might not catch it."

So imagine O'Donoghue's pleasant surprise during the Woodbridge game last season. Gonzalez, making a spot start, robbed one player of a home run by reaching over the fence. He later made a diving catch.

"It wasn't coaching," O'Donoghue said. "His dad hit fly balls to him every day. He worked hard. Still, the difference was mind-boggling."

But it was also a no-brainer. Despite a team loaded with seniors, O'Donoghue had Gonzalez in the starting lineup after the Woodbridge game. He hit .396 and did not make one error.

*

Another stop: Does Vince Brown intend on coaching for every Tustin rival?

Brown, the Tillers' coach for seven seasons, was the Woodbridge head coach the last two seasons. This year, he is an assistant at Foothill.

*

Numbers: The top returners in each category (based on The Times' final regular-season stats):

Batting--Calvary Chapel third baseman Joe Jones (.526).

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