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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Mind Games

Does Defending Champion El Camino Real or Chatsworth, With Three Victories Over the Conquistadores This Season, Have an Edge in Tonight's City Section 4-A Baseball Final?

June 11, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe Bryan Gant will start to get shaky when the team bus rolls up Stadium Way.

Or maybe it will hit him when he and his Chatsworth High teammates step onto the bright green grass at Dodger Stadium.

Either way, the left fielder figures to get a little nervous at some point before Chatsworth plays El Camino Real for the City Section 4-A Division championship tonight.

When he does, Gant can take a moment to reflect on his team's three victories over El Camino Real this season.

"We proved so far that we can be successful against them," he said. "I feel it does give us an edge."

In the El Camino Real dugout, however, starting pitcher Kurt Birkins can take some comfort in the fact his team is defending 4-A champion, a winner of three title games at Chavez Ravine this decade.

"We know that the [regular season] doesn't really matter," Birkins said. "This is the game that means it all."

This is the game that will put an end to the anxious days and restless nights that precede a championship game. It is a time when players often struggle with their emotions. The common symptoms include: dry mouth, rapid breathing, hair standing on the back of the neck.

"The fight-or-flight syndrome," said Drew Yellen, a Northridge-based sports psychologist. "Athletes recognize that. What it comes down to is their ability to control the experience."

Some can simply ignore it all. Others will seek a psychological advantage, anything to grab hold of in a time of need.

That edge might be difficult to find when it comes to Chatsworth and El Camino Real, two West Valley League teams that have forged a baseball rivalry over the last eight years.

They have met for the 4-A championship three times this decade--in 1990, '93 and '94--with El Camino Real winning twice. All three meetings this season were hard-fought and emotional.

"Oh, God," Chatsworth second baseman Kevin O'Hara said after his team won, 8-6, in April. "It's a war."

In preparation for the battle tonight, Gant has been going over his team's head-to-head victories and "thinking a lot about how I approached the pitchers, what worked for us."

This can be a particularly useful exercise, said Thomas R. George, a kinesiology professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in sports psychology.

"It's a source of motivation," George said. "Something they are able to draw on."

Even El Camino Real Coach Mike Maio conceded: "I don't know if it's an advantage, but it's always better to win than to lose."

Yet Maio's players can choose to forget the regular season and think back to their 13-11 victory over Banning in the title game last season.

"A lot of championship teams will regroup and will know that the postseason is a different situation," George said. "They have the experience of winning it all and they are able to draw upon that."

Yellen agreed: "If you've got kids on a team that have been there before, that's a major factor. They know what the pressure is like walking onto the field at Dodger Stadium."

The experience factor has a ripple effect on younger teammates.

"The rookies will always take their cue from the experienced people," Yellen said. "When they see the experienced players are calm, that's going to calm the other kids down."

But experts concur that that greatest psychological advantage goes to the squad that can tune out all the psycho-babble by the time the first pitch is thrown.

"In the days leading up to a game like this, you can use [psychological motivation] as a push to get you ready, but the closer you get to game day, that has to take a back seat to execution," George said.

The coaches, for their part, have opted to steer clear of any discussion of an advantage.

Chatsworth Coach Tom Meusborn said: "It's a one-game series. We know what's at stake. They know what's at stake. There's not a whole lot to talk about."

So both squads have filled their practices with straight-forward mechanics. At night, players such as Gant and Birkins are keeping their minds occupied with schoolwork and scouting reports.

Everyone is trying to stay low-key.

"You can only keep that peak level for so long," Yellen said. "You get a teenaged kid with the adrenaline pumping for 36 or 48 hours and you've got a problem."

As the game begins, players must have enough energy to concentrate on the task at hand.

"You can't focus when you are thinking about prior events," George said. "Your thoughts have to be in the present. What do I need to do? What pitches should I throw?

"That's what separates the ones who succeed."

Gant and Birkins know this all too well. They played together on a club team last winter and Gant asked plenty of questions about what it felt like to be in the championship game.

The Chatsworth player figures it might take a few pitches to settle down and focus his thoughts. That's how it was for Birkins last season.

He came on as a relief pitcher in the second inning against Banning and admittedly felt butterflies at first. Maybe that accounts for the grand slam he gave up in that inning.

Eventually, Birkins stopped being dazzled by the bright lights and big-league dugout. He thought only about baseball.

"We just need to start playing and get the jitters out," Birkins said. "It's just a game, right?"

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