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Najera Not Staying in Anyone's Shadow

Baseball: Coach of the year had big shoes to fill at Canyon.

June 04, 1996|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's never easy being No. 2. Being the guy who replaces "the first of" anything. Especially when the predecessor was a winner.

When Harold "Hi" Lavalle retired as Canyon baseball coach four years ago, he left a legacy that included the school's only section baseball championship, which came in 1984 against Lompoc. Lavalle also guided the Comanches to the 1991 championship game, which they lost to Capistrano Valley.

But Mike Najera has proven he is no second banana. Not with three consecutive Century League titles. Not with a victory Saturday in the Division II championship game against Upland. Not with 27 victories this season, more than any other county team.

That's why Najera was the No. 1 choice for the Times Orange County baseball coach of the year.

"When you think of Mike, dedication comes to mind," Canyon Athletic Director Steve Anderson said. "He's dedicated to the classroom, and brings that to the baseball field."

"He teaches the things you want your coaches to instill--that you represent the school, and you take responsibility for actions."

The thrill of his selection, Najera said, is that it came while at Canyon. It's the only place he has wanted to work, he said.

"This is the only place to give me a chance to be a head coach," said Najera, 41, who served as a assistant to Lavalle for 11 years. "I've always felt a loyalty to them. I won't look for greener grass. Even if I had not gotten the head job I would have stayed at Canyon teaching and/or coaching. I feel lucky to have a job there."

He's also been the benefactor of some excellent teams, including last year's squad, anchored by outfielders Greg Jacobs, Darren Chandler and Eric Valent, an all-county selection. In fact the 1995 team was expected to go deep into the playoffs, but was upset in the first round by Upland.

"We ran into a hot pitcher that game," said Najera, referring to Dave Coggin, who is in the Phillies organization. "The toughest thing about the playoffs is its single-game elimination, but that's way you have to do it.

"We tried to use [the loss] to show the younger guys that this can happen even to good teams."

What he enjoyed about this year's team, Najera said, is how it bloomed late.

"The kids learned to believe in themselves as the year went on," Najera said. "The first part of year they were thinking of how the 1995 team made [the game] look easy. But they listened and looked for ways to improve.

"We had some tough games early. But I think the loss in the Las Vegas tournament championship game to Tucson (Ariz.) High turned the year around. They realized they had to keep working, but also that they could compete."

Canyon would lose one more time, a league game against Villa Park, but ran the table in its final 14 games, including the championship.

Santa Ana Valley Coach Leon Smith is not surprised at what Najera has done at Canyon.

"He's a disciplinarian without screaming or yelling," Smith said. "You see it in their play. They run hard everywhere; they work hard in field. They never loaf and that's from the coaching.

"It doesn't hurt to have talent, but he'd be a great coach anywhere."

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