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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | Northridge Begins Uncertain
Season

One Up, One Down

January 20, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — How couldn't he be proud? Against severe odds, Mike Batesole guided Cal State Northridge to a 94-38 record the past two seasons, more victories than all but a small handful of teams in the nation.

But last summer as he stood in line at a grocery store in front of two young boys wearing Matador T-shirts, his heart sank. The words "Northridge Baseball" were crossed out in black marker.

Ouch.

That was one of a series of indignities suffered by Batesole in the days after Northridge cut baseball and three other men's sports.

He learned of the cuts by reading about them in a newspaper. His best players transferred and his strongest recruiting class scattered to the wind, finding refuge in top programs all over the country. His assistant coach bolted for a plum position at Arkansas.

Batesole, in the second year of a three-year contract, simply endured. And so has his program, which begins a less-than-promising season today at Arizona.

Baseball was reinstated in August for one year because of a $586,000 bailout from state educational funds. Then, last month, Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson reacted to the recommendations of a special task force on Northridge athletics by announcing that the four sports will survive for at least one additional season.

She later said the reinstatements are permanent--an assertion confirmed by Athletic Director Paul Bubb--but Batesole continues to have difficulty recruiting because players and their parents recall Wilson's original announcement.

"They aren't sure whether to believe me when I tell them it's permanent," Batesole said. "We'll lose a lot of kids because of that."

Frustrated on all sides, Batesole is doing what he does best: Spending countless hours on the diamond preparing his team.

"These guys love to work, they enjoy the process of getting ready," Batesole said. "That makes it enjoyable to me. With all that's happened since the summer, it's nice to just be a coach again."

The team is a far cry from Batesole's first bunch that led the nation with 52 victories, won the Western Athletic Conference title and advanced to an NCAA regional final. Nor will it compare with a group that went 42-20 and defeated USC, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Clemson and Pepperdine last year.

And among the current Matadors, their probably isn't an Adam Kennedy, Robert Fick or Eric Gillespie, Matador All-Americans making their marks professionally.

But there is Nakia Hill and Darren Dyt, transfers with solid Division I credentials. And senior third baseman Chris MacMillan, sophomore first baseman Adrian Mendoza and sophomore catcher Jeremy Sickles are returning starters.

"I honestly have no idea how we will do," Batesole said. "It's been really hard to evaluate because with only 13 position players, we can't even scrimmage."

Hill started 55 games at second base for Cal State Fullerton last season, batting .357 with seven homers and 40 runs batted in. He will play either shortstop or second base. Dyt, a senior outfielder who batted .325 with five homers and 19 RBIs for Fresno State, will play either center or right field.

Their positions depend on the status of junior Marco Estrada, who transferred from Fullerton. Estrada's academic eligibility is in question, so it may not matter that he looks good at shortstop, center field and third.

MacMillan, who hit .318 in 35 games last year, and Sickles, who batted .310, will bat in the middle of the lineup and should provide power. Mendoza, a fine defensive first baseman, batted .274.

Because of the program's uncertain future, freshmen were reluctant to choose Northridge. However, one who stuck with the Matadors throughout the uncertainty is Eric Horvat, whose persistence appears to have paid off with a starting job in left field.

Horvat was an All-Valley infielder at Hart High and batted .470. The only other freshman is Ricky Helland, a backup catcher who was an All-Ventura County player from Buena High, where he played pitcher and catcher.

Jamie Hay, a sophomore transfer who played sparingly at Notre Dame last season, will be designated hitter and get some action at catcher. Jeff Elorduy, a junior from Sacramento City College, can play catcher and first base.

Kevin Patrick, a junior from Fresno City College, will play second base if Hill stays at shortstop. Senior Mike McNeely, a Matador utility player last season, can play third, second and outfield. Another outfielder is Aaron Aguirre, a junior from Fresno City.

Pitching is the greatest concern. There is little experience and no one is likely to produce the quality innings logged last season by left-handers Erasmo Ramirez and Benny Flores, who both transferred to Fullerton last summer.

"A lot of these guys were available two weeks before school started," Batesole said.

Left-hander Carey Novits, the lone Matador returner who won three of his four starts and posted a 5.85 earned-run average in eight appearances, is the only pitcher to start a Division I game.

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