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PREP BASEBALL '95: PREVIEW : Canyon's Valent Has Always Been Ahead of the Game

March 07, 1995|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — In his mind, Eric Valent is still standing at home plate.

Two on . . . two out . . . bottom of the seventh . . . Canyon trails Temecula Valley, 5-2, . . . Southern Section Division II quarterfinals . . .

If Valent could hit that big pause button, he would.

. . . the 1-1 pitch glances off the catcher's glove . . . a Canyon player tries to advance . . . he's out.

End of game. End of season.

"The pitch was a ball and I had already made up my mind to look for a fastball on the next one," Valent said. "Then it was over."

Valent, a .426 hitter with six home runs and 36 runs batted in, was left standing at home plate.

"It was one of the those freak things," Coach Mike Najera said. "It was nobody's fault. But it would have been nice to see what Eric would have done. He could have tied it up with one swing."

Valent, and others, will never know. But many could make an educated guess.

There are few high school players who hit in the clutch better than Valent, a senior outfielder. He has already spent three seasons on the Canyon varsity proving that point.

Valent has hit better than .400 the past two seasons. People noticed. College coaches pursued him all summer. Valent finally decided on UCLA. He also spent the summer traveling with the U.S. Junior Olympic team and impressed professional scouts from Texas to Canada.

Not bad for a kid who used to follow his older brother around.

"He was always there," said Royce Valent, who is two years older. "He'd come out and be the bat boy or something for about every team I played on."

That changed the summer before his eighth grade year. Royce Valent, now a catcher at Fullerton College, was playing for Canyon. One day, the Comanches were short a player in practice.

Eric Valent filled in.

"He went out to right field and, instead of being intimidated, he was throwing people out," Najera said.

Said Royce Valent: "As a kid, Eric didn't like playing with kids his own age. He knew he was better."

Valent still seems ahead of the crowd. He participated in the Olympic Festival last summer and was one of 20 players picked for the Junior Olympic team. His play was spectacular at times.

In St. Louis, he fielded a ball down the right-field line and threw out a runner trying to go from first to third, ending an inning.

"It was like watching a major leaguer throw," Royce Valent said. "It was just a white blur. Eric came running in afterward and the kid he threw out stopped him and shook his hand. He said he had never been thrown out before."

In Texas, he was named player of the game. He had a home run and two doubles.

"The great thing about the trip was we played almost every day," Valent said. "If you went 0 for 4 on Tuesday, you had a chance to redeem yourself on Wednesday."

In Canada, he hit a line drive off the pitcher's knee for a game-winning single in front of 6,000 fans and several Canadian television crews. He hit .429 during in that tournament.

"Eric would call me once a week and you could tell he was having a blast," Najera said.

Valent's play last season and his performance during the summer, has made him a marked hitter. The high school season hasn't even started and already pitchers are working him carefully.

El Dorado virtually pitched around him last week. And that was only a scrimmage.

"I'm not going to see a lot of fastballs this season," Valent said.

Valent played briefly on the junior varsity as a freshman. Two things changed that.

First, he was hitting nearly .700. Second, Matt Kastelic--the starting center field on the varsity--was injured in a collision while chasing a fly ball.

The next day, Valent was the leadoff batter for the varsity in the Glendora tournament final. He's been on the varsity since.

Valent hit .340 in his freshman season and has improved.

Last season, he was considered the best hitter on a team that had seven players hit .400 or better and averaged eight runs. But Valent could carry the team when needed.

He had a grand slam, triple and double, knocking in six runs and scoring two, in an 8-7 victory over Foothill in a Century League game.

But the season ended in the quarterfinals for the third consecutive season. This time with Valent standing at home.

"Yeah, you don't know what would have happened," Valent said. "Maybe I would have struck out."

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