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/ THE FINALS

Westlake Puts It All Together, Finally

June 06, 1998|TRIS WYKES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — Outfielder Mikey Brin of Westlake High was talking while leaning against a fence Wednesday at the Warriors' baseball field when a carload of girls drove past.

Although Brin was all but standing on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the car's passengers directed their shouts at a player standing 20 yards behind him.

"Hi, Kevin!" the girls called to third baseman Kevin Howard.

Such is life for the anonymous Brin. While teammates such as Howard, outfielder Joey Cuppari and shortstop Scott Dragicevich are accustomed to notoriety, Brin is among a group of unsung heroes who have labored in relative obscurity for Westlake.

Brian Bladen, Doug Hutton and Jeff Boyle are other members of the no-name club.

The arrangement seems amicable. Westlake (19-10) has advanced to the Southern Section Division III championship game against West Covina South Hills (24-4) today at 1 p.m. at Dodger Stadium.

"It doesn't bother me at all," said Brin, who is batting .361 with 35 runs batted in. "It takes the pressure off me. The big-name guys are expected to do well, but people don't look at me that way."

The Warriors have used a blend of the well-known and the obscure to march through the playoffs after stumbling at times during the regular season. They needed to win their final Marmonte League game against Royal to qualify for the playoffs.

South Hills has senior pitcher-first baseman Ryan Smith (8-1), who pitched a complete game in the semifinals. Smith, who has signed with Cal State Northridge and was drafted this week by the Toronto Blue Jays, will relieve right-handed starter Bo Wilfong (6-2) if necessary.

The Huskies, co-champions of the Valle Vista League, are making their fifth championship appearance in the last 11 years. South Hills won last season's Division IV title and the 1992 4-A crown.

Westlake finished third in the Marmonte League in 1997 and second this season. But its postseason run and the improvement of several players has lessened the disappointment of not winning a league title.

Dragicevich, a Stanford-bound senior who is Westlake's valedictorian, said the emergence of Bladen, a senior left fielder, was a crucial development.

"I think he was the surprise of the season," Dragicevich said of Bladen, who is batting .413 with 17 RBIs. "There was a big question about left field and he had the best year of his life."

Hutton, a junior who is batting .395, emerged from a three-man platoon to win the job at first base. He has solidified an infield that includes second baseman Ryan Cope, who is batting .465 with 35 RBIs.

Boyle (7-3), a senior right-hander who has walked only 16 batters in 61 innings, will start today. Junior Mike Alba (5-0) and closer Ethan East (3-1) are available in relief.

"On this team, everyone is playing for one goal and it doesn't matter who gets the [publicity]," Cuppari said. "We know the guys who should have been in the paper more often are helping us just as much as anyone else."

Cuppari, a senior who also excels in football and basketball, viewed baseball as merely a pastime until he was challenged earlier this season by Coach Chuck Berrington.

"We had a yelling match where he said he saw something in me and he wanted me to bring it out," said Cuppari, who is batting .486 with 26 stolen bases. "I was just out here for fun, but I said I'd work harder."

Cuppari's breakthrough season has left him with second thoughts about accepting a football scholarship to Colorado State, which does not have a baseball team.

"There's a little bit of regret there," Cuppari said. "If I had it to do over again, I'd probably choose a school with a [baseball] team, but I do everything spur of the moment."

While Cuppari's performance soared, the talented Howard struggled for much of the season. But the junior who batted .512 last season has regained his form in recent weeks, raising his average to .372.

The twists of Westlake's season have mirrored the coaching career of Berrington, who has followed a winding path to Dodger Stadium today.

Berrington, 33, is in his second full season with the Westlake varsity. A former player at St. Bonaventure High and Moorpark and Oxnard colleges, he was promoted midway through the Warriors' tumultuous 1996 season when Dave Wilder was removed from the post.

Thrown into the fire, Berrington, a Westlake varsity assistant in 1995 who started the 1996 season as junior varsity coach, guided the Warriors to a four-game winning streak and fourth place in the Marmonte League.

"[The administration] asked me if I could handle the varsity and I said, yeah. I'd been waiting for the chance my whole life," said Berrington, whose career record is 41-19. "I told the kids that we were going to work hard and we were going to go after championships."

Berrington inherited a program known for parental interference and petulant players. But his insistence on enforcing rules seems to have curbed both problems.

"I told the team it would be my way or the highway and I think I've stuck to that," he said. "But [the players] know I'm watching out for them on and off the field."

Berrington wasn't watching his rear-view mirror on the day in 1990 when he was ticketed for speeding as he returned from an unimpressive performance at a professional tryout camp.

"I told the officer, "Thank you, this is the worst day of my life,' " Berrington said. "I decided right there my playing days were done and my career lay in coaching. But I never dreamed I'd end up at Dodger Stadium."

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