Canyon Coach Lance Eddy, watching El Toro do unkind things on the softball field to his pitcher, finally blurted out a question that turned into an intriguing analogy.
"What are you," he said to El Toro Coach Jim Daugherty, "the Foothill of the South County?"
Well, in a lot of ways, yes. Lots of line-drive hitters, players who put pressure on the opposition by taking the extra base and getting their bunts down, a good defense and solid pitching.
El Toro won by getting big hits from the likes of Rachael Wennekamp and Anne Skidmore, players no more than a half-dozen coaches outside the Sea View League could name.
Yet, the Chargers spent most of the year ranked fifth in the county--ultimately finishing sixth.
That ranking wasn't a gift. It was earned by scoring victories over Upland, Saugus, Kennedy, La Habra, Canyon, Irvine. All quality teams--three of which reached the section semifinals, one of which won the Division I title.
That's why Daugherty, in his 12th year at El Toro, is the Times Orange County softball coach of the year.
It was a tough call because there were several excellent candidates:
* Shelly Luth, Marina. She started two freshmen on the right side of her infield, two sophomores on the left, had a junior pitcher who had only played second base previously, and finished 17-10-1--without a single senior. They were 13-13-1 a year ago.
* Sue Hall, Kennedy. She made steps forward by stepping back, bringing on former Cal State Fullerton standout Cheryl Longeway as a co-coach to work with her pitchers (team earned-run average, 0.31) and had eighth-ranked Kennedy (23-6) as high as fifth before reaching the Division III semifinals.
* John Sansone, Ocean View. His most notable player was a second-team all-county pitcher, yet the Seahawks went undefeated in the Golden West League, finish 18-9 and were nearly ranked by season's end.
Daugherty was fond of Luth's performance, but he exceeded hers by winning--a lot--largely with unknowns. El Toro improved from 19-13-1 in 1996 to 24-8-1 in 1997, despite the graduation of Times all-county first-team outfielder Dana Gulick (Arkansas) and second-team outfielder Jennifer Hamer (Louisiana State).
Daugherty penciled two seniors, one junior, four sophomores and two freshmen into the starting lineup for their final game, a second-round loss to Division I finalist Foothill.
His two seniors, Wennekamp (.330) and Skidmore (.284), were coming off junior seasons in which they batted .257 and .226. Improvement? That's the the hallmark of solid coaching.
That duo, along with freshman Nicki Everett, made up the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order. They combined for 38 runs batted in, only five more than Lizzy Lemire had for Sea View League rival Woodbridge. How does a team win with that kind of production? Clutch hitting in close ball games.
They took advantage of situations. They played a tough nonleague schedule to focus on league play, but instead gelled early on into a nice little team that did more than most expected.