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The Best Places to Play : If You're Involved With a Spring Sport, These Facilities Are Where You Want to Be

June 03, 1997|MARTIN HENDERSON

These are the venues that are often taken for granted.

They may not be perfect, but they are certainly rich in character, style or story. If they're not the best facilities available for Orange County high school athletic programs, they're certainly not the worst.

Softball, Foothill

The Foothill softball field--across the street on the campus of Hillview Continuation High--is the finest in the county because it has such a big-league feel to it. Where Bermuda grass meets dirt, it's edged. Patterns are hand-mowed into the plush outfield grass, which took eight hours to mow until three weeks ago. It now takes 20 because the grass has grown so thick.

There are hitting cages, bullpens and bleachers. A concession stand is a short walk. Foothill has been the top-seeded softball team in the playoffs the last three years and the field looks like the perfect site for such a program.

It's not the perfect place to watch a game, though. Because of a wind screen that separates players in the home dugout from the fans behind home plate, left field can't be seen from some of the bleacher seats. Kennedy and Pacifica, for example, have far superior bleacher arrangements, but playing on this field is hard to beat. It's so smooth and well-defined, it looks like a board game.

Those bleachers--maybe the highest of any high school field except for Kennedy, which plays at Arnold Park--nearly cost Coach Joe Gonzalez in 1994. They were lifted over the 40-foot high backstop by a crane. While being lowered, they started to swing--and nearly crushed the coach.

There are little things, too: flags on the foul poles, advertising on the fence, painted wood trim on the coaching boxes down the first- and third-base lines. The school's championship banners face directly into the visiting dugout as a reminder and intimidating bit of information.

The field is manicured to fit Foothill's strength--its speed.

The outfield grass is mowed to the lowest setting on the push lawn mower--not quite a putting green, but still plenty fast. It's done that way for a reason, as the triples by Jaime Clark and Lauren Bauer in a second-round playoff victory over El Toro can attest. Balls through the gaps go to the fence, enabling Foothill's speedy runners to circle the bases.

Only four balls have been hit over the fence in Foothill's eight years on the site. Two of those homers were by Knights after the fence was moved from 200 to 210 feet, Marie Gieron last year and Jaime Clark this year. The two homers over the shorter fence against them were costly. The first came on April 24, 1995. Leadoff batter Heather Culver homered on the second pitch of the game, and 10th-ranked Villa Park beat No. 1 Foothill, 1-0. The other was May 25, 1995, when Westlake Village Westlake's Cathie Davie hit a three-run homer to knock top-seeded Foothill out of the quarterfinals, 3-2.

Foothill didn't lose a home game this season, but the field isn't perfect. Players took some of the infield dirt to a tournament in Santa Maria, then sprinkled it in front of their dugout before the game--and lost. It was a short-lived tradition.

Hal Thoms, a freelance photographer, has a daughter on the team, Tricia, a freshman catcher. He spent 40 hours preparing the field for the last playoff game, against El Toro. He uses a push mower rather than a riding mower. Taking care of the field has become his passion.

"We've had other parents do it--Michelle Churnock's dad did it--but nobody has done it like Hal," Gonzalez said. "He's unbelievable."

Thoms volunteered his time as a cost-saving measure for the program. His horticulture skills were limited. Most of the help he gets comes from Albert Alvidrez, Jr., who works for the school district. A lifesaver, Thoms calls him. Yet, it's Thoms who is out there every day, painting, watering, mowing and taking care of emergencies.

"Hopefully, I'll find some better employment, and it might be a little harder to work on the field, but I'll get it done," Thoms said. "I'll be ready next year. Hopefully, we'll have a little more help out there.

"We really feel like we're unbeatable on that field. It's a very special place.

And specialized. Not only is the grass cut short, but the dirt in front of home plate is "hard as concrete," Thoms says.

Ever wonder why Foothill gets so many infield hits? Those high choppers happen for a reason. And by design.

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