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6 FROM '96

Moving, Shaking, and Running in Place

December 25, 1996|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were our "Six for '96," the shakers and movers we believed would influence the local sports scene during the year.

Well, as might be expected, we hit the mark with some and totally missed on others:

RON KOPITA

In our story last year depicting him as one of the people to watch in 1996, Kopita said that "in some ways, we are more excited about 1997."

Perhaps Kopita, Cal State Northridge's vice president for student affairs, jumped ahead a little too fast.

The Matadors thrived in several sports this year and Kopita, who has administrative control over the athletic department, played a significant role in that success.

Kopita mapped Northridge's move to the Big Sky Conference, which called for the Matadors to triple their football scholarships, renovate facilities and add two sports.

Northridge quickly impacted the nine-school conference, winning the women's volleyball title and finishing third in football.

But the year wasn't trouble-free for Kopita.

After hiring Paul Bubb as athletic director, Kopita took heat for supporting Bubb's firing of longtime men's basketball Coach Pete Cassidy and watched as the selection process for a new coach came under scrutiny for alleged improprieties.

He later suspended Bubb and football Coach Dave Baldwin, who this month was hired at San Jose State, for covering up the shooting of a football player at a party.

Maybe Kopita was right to be more excited about 1997.

MATT ELLIS

He envisioned a successful minor-league franchise in Lancaster and delivered one.

As vice president and general manager of the JetHawks, the California League's affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, Ellis saw the team flourish financially in Lancaster after moving from Riverside because of poor attendance.

The JetHawks drew 316,611 fans, third-best in the league, an average of 4,523 at the new city-owned, 4,500-seat stadium that also has sitting room on two picnic areas inside the grounds.

In 1995 at Riverside, where they were known as the Pilots, the team finished last at the gate in the 10-team circuit with a paltry 56,601 customers.

Ellis knew he had tapped into a gold mine when the JetHawks sold about 1,000 season tickets and all the hats they could keep in store four months before the season started.

The season-ticket holders grew to about 2,300 by year's end.

Oh, by the way, the JetHawks finished 71-69.

THE OLYMPIANS

Several athletes from the region were headed for the Olympics, so we picked them to leave their imprint in Atlanta.

Some did:

Sheila Cornell, who graduated from Taft High, and Kim Maher, from Buena, won gold medals with the U.S. softball team.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a Canoga Park resident, was injured during the Games and couldn't continue her quest for a third consecutive gold medal in the heptathlon but recovered to win a bronze medal in the long jump.

Some missed out on the glory:

Highly touted welterweight boxer Fernando Vargas of Oxnard, one of the pre-Games favorites to win a medal, lost in a disputed decision in the preliminaries. Vargas makes his pro debut March 7.

Veteran runner Johnny Gray, an Agoura Hills resident, finished seventh in the 800 meters.

Some never got there:

Boxer Lance Whitaker of Granada Hills, one of the top amateur heavyweights in the country, lost two close decisions at the Olympic trials in April and didn't qualify for the Games. Whitaker turned pro in July and is 3-0 with three first-round knockouts.

Two track hopefuls, Quincy Watts and Danny Harris, stumbled.

Watts, the former Taft High standout who was the 400-meter Olympic champion at Barcelona in 1992, did not qualify. Harris, the 1984 silver medalist in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, withdrew from the Olympic trials after testing positive for cocaine.

Some, we forgot to mention:

Simi Valley's Justin Huish stunned everyone by winning the individual gold medal in archery and later helping the U.S. claim the team gold medal.

Kristine Quance, a Northridge native and USC swimmer, failed to medal in the 200-meter individual medley and the 100 backstroke, but received a gold medal as a member of the 400 medley relay team even though she didn't swim in the final.

REGGIE SMITH

The year started well for Smith, hitting instructor and first-base coach for the Dodgers and private baseball teacher to youngsters.

His brainchild, the Baseball Development Center in Woodland Hills, was forging ahead with plans for relocation to a 100,000-square-foot facility in Warner Center.

Among other things, the complex was supposed to house 40 batting cages equipped with video cameras, a clubhouse and a restaurant.

Early in the year, Smith and the BDC hosted a well-attended clinic for coaches that featured Tom Lasorda, Bill Russell, Dave Wallace, Manny Mota and others.

But plans for the new facility were scrapped because Smith's partners were unable to drum up the necessary financial support.

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