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Irvine's Baker Made Most of What She Had

Softball: Coach of the year surprised many with Vaqueros' performance.

June 04, 1996|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do you give a coach who has nothing?

A coach such as Irvine's Lisa Baker who, when the talent is lined up before the season begins, appears to be . . . well, a little short-handed?

And then who goes out and does enough to win quietly and consistently?

And whose team wins so many games its record can't be ignored and is ranked among the top 10?

And once there, continues to win, never drawing attention to itself, but doing what most softball teams aspire to do?

You give Baker The Times' Orange County coach of the year award.

Not that that eases a second-round loss to Long Beach Millikan in the playoffs. There's something about going 11 innings and losing, 3-2, that sticks in the psyche for a while.

But eighth-ranked Irvine was a surprise this year, hanging tough in the Sea View League with two teams that most figured to be among the top 10--Woodbridge and El Toro--and another that figured to have as much talent as the Vaqueros, Santa Margarita.

But Irvine pushed itself into fray, finishing in second with a 7-3 league record, behind fourth-ranked Woodbridge and ahead of 10th-ranked El Toro.

But this award isn't a gift--it was earned.

Irvine entered the season with one notable player, outfielder Debbie Tomoguchi, who was a second-team All-County selection last year. Well, Tomoguchi is a first-teamer this year after batting .424 and driving in 31 runs.

But face it--she's an outfielder. Impact players in softball are at shortstop, third base and in the pitcher's circle--not in left field.

Yet Irvine managed fine with only one first-team all-league selection because it handled pressure.

OK, the Vaqueros made too many errors (55)--two more than their opponents. It didn't exactly kill them.

They were as adept at survival as any county team. Infield practices began with a runner at third base to simulate game situations. "The pressure was on our defense," Baker said, "from Inning One."

She said the Vaqueros learned how to deal with the pressure, and most importantly, "got pretty good at getting out of the situation."

Along the way, they stole a run here and there and went 22-7-1.

That 75% success rate is consistent with Baker's teams in the past; through seven seasons, the Vaqueros are 140-43-1 (.764).

But she wasn't afraid to make key player moves. Two freshmen started, outfielder Brett Nakabayashi, a leadoff batter who hit .346, and little-known Lauren Mertz.

"Basically, we just do the best we can with what we have," Baker said. "We didn't have the 'gun' pitcher, where you can just sit back and relax; our pitcher was a sophomore and we knew there was a lot of work to be done."

Irvine got the most out of players such as Mertz and Colleen Young, who fashioned a 15-4 record with a 0.65 earned-run average.

Who cares if a game is won 2-1 or 4-3 or 7-5? Not Irvine.

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