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PREVIEW

It's Raining Pitchers at Notre Dame

March 06, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHERMAN OAKS — If pitching wins baseball championships, then Tom Dill, Notre Dame High Coach, ought to start clearing away space for a 1998 Mission League trophy.

"If Tom loses with that staff, he better come sell light bulbs with me," said Chaminade Coach Scott Drootin, who owns a light bulb business.

Dill has so many quality arms available that he's probably the only coach in the region not worried about El Nino. If rain forces games to be postponed, it will create more opportunities for an eight-man Notre Dame pitching staff capable of handling three and four games a week.

"I want to play games as scheduled, but if it [rains], I'm in position where I don't have to do a lot of thinking," Dill said.

Notre Dame returns its top two pitchers from a 20-9 team, right-hander Kevin Jerkens (6-3) and left-hander Ryan Stonerock (6-1). They're both considered co-No. 1 pitchers on a staff that might be the best in Dill's six years as coach.

Not far behind Jerkens and Stonerock is junior right-hander Phillip Polanco, the team's hardest thrower. Dill will use him wherever needed, whether starting or ending a game.

Then there are two unbeaten pitchers from the league championship junior varsity team, junior right-hander Ryan Cowsill (7-0) and junior left-hander Joel Kirsten (8-0). Add seniors Austin Bryant, Jason Hershfield and Brian Ferguson, and you begin to understand how Dill is the envy of many coaches.

"Coach Dill certainly has his hands full with who to pitch and when," Jerkens said. "There's always someone right on your tail to fill your spot. We're doing intrasquad games, and we're not hitting the ball no matter who's throwing."

When Notre Dame reached the Southern Section Division I semifinals in 1993 and 1994, the Knights came up short because their No. 1 pitchers, Chris Leveque and Rich Igou, ended up throwing too many innings. That shouldn't be a problem this season.

Jerkens and Stonerock are best friends. They're known for their fierce competitiveness on the mound. In the constant battle between pitcher and hitter, these two seniors can stare down the best.

"He [Jerkens] is the type of guy who will many times outcompete his opposition with his intensity," Dill said.

Stonerock earned first-team All-Mission League honors as a junior when he went 5-0 and fooled hitters with his curveball.

"He [Stonerock] can throw the offspeed pitch at any time for a strike," Dill said.

Polanco can be an overpowering pitcher, with a fastball approaching 85 mph even though he stands only 5 feet 10. "With his live arm, he has the capability of being great," Dill said.

Cowsill threw two no-hitters during summer American Legion ball. Kirsten dominated at the JV level. Bryant and Hershfield both could be spot performers. Ferguson, besides pitching, will provide entertainment. He's the lead singer and guitarist in a band and is Notre Dame's most musically-inclined pitcher since Jack McDowell.

Five different teams have won the Mission championship since 1993--Crespi, Notre Dame, Alemany, Loyola and Chaminade. "It means we have a tough league," Dill said.

Notre Dame's pitchers won't go unchallenged. Chaminade has senior Bruce Greenwood (9-1) and Crespi counters with juniors Michael Jackson and Tim Leveque.

With exceptional pitching, Notre Dame will also need defense and some hitting to prevail. The key player is junior shortstop John Puccinelli.

Last season, Notre Dame upset Marmonte League champion Camarillo in the first round of the Division I playoffs before losing in the quarterfinals. This season, the Knights have visions of reaching Dodger Stadium and the Division I championship game.

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