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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Hill Finds Mecca as a Matador

Baseball: Cal State Fullerton castoff puts up All-American numbers at Northridge.

April 21, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Even before Cal State Northridge infielder Nakia Hill went 15 for 28 last week, he was receiving praise of the highest order.

"I was trying to think if I've seen a better player than Nakia on any team we've played," Coach Mike Batesole said. "I haven't seen a single one."

Cut from Cal State Fullerton last summer after a dispute with coaches, Hill is one of many Matadors who rose from the scrap heap to perform beyond anyone's expectations. The junior is batting .414 with 13 home runs, 36 runs batted in and 12 stolen bases.

Those are All-American numbers from a guy Batesole kicked out of practice one day in the fall.

"I wasn't hustling and it was a reality check," Hill said. "He showed me what kind of coach he was. We've been on the same page ever since."

He soon worked himself back into Batesole's good graces, but the next kicking was done by Hill, who began the season at shortstop. He made 16 errors--about one a game--before Batesole mercifully switched him to second base, the position he played while batting .357 last season at Fullerton.

Moving Hill was one of several changes Batesole made six weeks ago. Kevin Patrick went from second base to third base, Chris MacMillan from third base to left field and Marco Estrada from the outfield to shortstop.

The coach also held a team meeting where Hill said Batesole told the players, "I don't want to coach a bunch of losers."

Northridge (30-19) promptly went on a school-record 16-game winning streak that was snapped last weekend in a split of four games at Kansas State.

"I really wanted to do well at shortstop and Batesole gave me a long look," Hill said. "At this point in my career, I guess I'm better off playing second.

"But we turned the season around when everybody took it upon themselves to let the pressure go and allow their natural ability to come out. Practices have been loose. Guys are getting their work done but smiling and having a good time doing it."

No one has a wider grin than Hill, who has made only two errors at second base, helping solidify an infield that has held up well despite the inexperience. Only first baseman Adrian Mendoza is a returning infielder.

The team's fielding percentage of .963 equals the school record.

"That success is a testament to these guys having a plan, being prepared and communicating very well," Batesole said.

Communication between Hill and Estrada often is in Spanish. Hill is majoring in international business and practices his Spanish relaying signs to the bilingual Estrada.

Hill speaks loudest with his bat. He has been the leadoff hitter most of the season even though he leads the team in home runs. Batesole is used to his leadoff hitter exhibiting power: Adam Kennedy belted 43 homers in 1996 and '97.

The respect Hill has gained was evident during a game against Pepperdine when he was walked intentionally to lead off an inning with the Matadors trailing by one late in the game. Putting the tying run on base was unconventional, but Pepperdine Coach Frank Sanchez said, "He's killed us every time we've played him. He even killed us last year when he played at Fullerton."

There aren't many teams Hill hasn't hurt. With 84 hits in 48 games, he would be on pace to become the fifth Northridge player to reach 100 hits if the Matadors were playing as many games as usual. However, as a cost-cutting move, Batesole was allowed to schedule only 54 games.

At season's end, Batesole will go to bat for Hill and push him for All-American honors. Then comes the major league draft in June.

"I've been interviewed by a couple of scouts, but I've tried not to give the draft much thought," Hill said. "Last year I got caught up in that and it hurt my game. I'm keeping my options open, but I do want to graduate, so there is a pretty good chance I'll be back for my senior year."

Batesole would welcome him back with open arms.

"I wouldn't trade Nakia Hill for anyone," he said. "The day-to-day leadership he's shown, coupled with the numbers he's put up, make him invaluable. He's run the team.

"All of these kids have taken control, and Hill has taken control more than anyone else."

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