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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Birkins Basks in Afterglow of El Camino Real's Title

Baseball: The Conquistadores, the dominant team in the Valley this decade, expected to be just as strong next season.

June 13, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pitcher Kurt Birkins of El Camino Real High stayed up to 4 a.m. Friday with his parents' approval.

"I was watching the video my dad took," he said. "I tried to go to sleep but couldn't. I still can't believe it."

Birkins' 12-strikeout, 10-inning complete game lifted the Conquistadores to a 5-2 upset over West Valley League rival Chatsworth on Thursday night in the City Section 4-A baseball final at Dodger Stadium.

He threw a four-hitter as El Camino Real (19-9) beat Chatsworth (29-4) for the first time in four games this season.

"My fastball was really pumping from all the adrenalin," he said after getting a couple hours of sleep. "My curveball, almost every time I threw it, was for a strike."

Birkins (11-2) had total confidence in his teammates. After shortstop Jared Maiden made a throwing error in the bottom of the eighth inning to let Chatsworth tie the game at 2-2, a disappointed Maiden apologized to Birkins in the dugout.

"I told him, 'Don't worry about it. This game isn't over yet. We're still going to win,' " Birkins said.

Birkins' pitching performance has helped increase his value to college recruiters. The senior left-hander has not signed with a four-year school. UCLA Coach Gary Adams called Birkins' home Friday morning. Birkins was scheduled to meet with Loyola Marymount Coach Frank Cruz later in the day.

Birkins stayed home from school Friday, as did many of El Camino Real's players.

"Coach [Mike] Maio told us we can take the day off," he said.

"I did no such thing," Maio said.

Well, sort off. Maio said if the players' parents think it's OK to stay home, then fine.

"I'll write them notes anyhow," Maio said. "They played good enough."

El Camino Real has become the Valley's dominant baseball program in the 1990s. It was the Conquistadores' fourth championship--1993, '94, '97 and '98.

"It's spellbinding. It's amazing. No one thought we could do it," sophomore third baseman Conor Jackson said.

"Every year, we keep getting solid players, and Coach Maio knows how to mold them into El Camino baseball players," Birkins said.

The Woodland Hills school is less than five miles from the talent-laden Westhills PONY baseball league.

One of those former Westhills players is All-City outfielder Woody Cliffords, who ended a memorable high school career by collecting four hits at Dodger Stadium. Cliffords finished the season with a .544 batting average and might have locked up City 4-A player of the year honors.

It was the 25th time in 26 years a Valley team has won the City 4-A championship. Don't be surprised if El Camino Real and Chatsworth return to Dodger Stadium in '99.

El Camino Real only loses Birkins, Cliffords and Maiden among its key players. Jackson has developed into a hitting star, and leadoff hitter Matt Schwartz was outstanding in the playoffs.

The Conquistadores' big task will be finding a new No. 1 pitcher. Junior pitcher Ryan Gunches was an important contributor in the playoffs and starts out as the top candidate.

Chatsworth must replace outfielders Tom Morefield and Bryan Gant and infielder Danny Eisenberg. But left-hander Mike Kunes (12-2) returns, along with sophomores Matt Cassel and Matt Fisher, plus members of a 26-1 junior varsity team. And Taft's Spector brothers, Jeff and Jason, could be transferring to Chatsworth in the fall.

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