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Steppingstone

Valley College Might Not Win Much but Its Players Are Successful

April 14, 1999|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — When Mike Wertz showed up to play baseball at Valley College three years ago, his sights were set much farther down the road.

Like many others, the former Village Christian catcher wanted to use junior college as a springboard to playing at a four-year school and perhaps even professionally.

"I went there as a scrawny little kid," Wertz said. "When I first got there, I said to C.J. [Coach Chris Johnson], 'Look, be real honest with me. Can you see me playing at the [Division I] level?' He said, 'No.'

"But he told me what I needed to do to get there. He helped me a lot."

The advice and Wertz's diligence paid off. After two seasons at Valley, Wertz transferred to Pepperdine, a Division I school, and was a redshirt one season. He now plays at The Master's, an NAIA power.

Wertz's case is not unique. Valley has struggled to win the last few seasons and, yet, the program regularly sends players to four-year schools.

Since Johnson took over at Valley in 1988, nearly 90 Valley players have made the jump, although some didn't play baseball after leaving the college.

To Johnson, 41, establishing that kind of legacy is more important than building a dynasty.

"I went to junior college [Ventura] and I saw junior colleges as a place to provide 18- and 19-year-olds with some direction," Johnson said.

"I like to think this is a stepping-off point in the life process. Life is a lot bigger than winning a game."

The Monarchs have not won often in recent years. This season they are 10-20 overall and 4-9 in Western State Conference play after defeating Santa Barbara City in an interdivision game Tuesday.

But Valley was among the strongest programs in California in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning the state championship in 1982 under Dave Snow, now coach at Long Beach State.

Johnson took over in 1988 and the following season led the Monarchs to a 16-2 start before finishing 29-12. Valley declined steadily afterward, finishing with a winning record only once since, in 1993.

Valley last year was 12-25 and finished in the WSC Southern Division basement at 9-17. But 13 players transferred to four-year schools, including catcher Casey Roth to San Diego State.

"I went [to Valley] an immature kid and came out a man," Roth said. "I took school for granted and did really bad. I was academically ineligible for the last two games [of freshman season].

"C.J. told me, 'You're going to have to make a choice.' He helped me through all of that. He wants the best for his players."

Johnson admits the losing gets old, that he is occasionally downcast. But he regroups and puts the priorities in order, even poking fun at his expense.

"We've been slumping for the '90s," Johnson said. "We basically took the decade off. The big thing in baseball now that kids like to talk about is being on suicide watch. I've been there a couple of times.

"It's not all punch and cookies. It gets pretty nasty sometimes. But when all that comes out in the wash, we hope everyone will see the big picture."

Several factors, Johnson said, contributed to Valley's woes. Perhaps the main one was the resurgence of the Pierce and Mission programs, which pursued and often landed top players recruited by Valley.

"Did I get stupid all of a sudden?" Johnson said. "A lot of things happened. A great coach [Bob Lofrano] came to Pierce and Mission had a program. All of a sudden, we were sharing a smaller pool of players."

Mission dropped its athletic program two years ago, giving Valley a better chance to attract players from high schools in the Northeast Valley.

Most weren't Division I or pro prospects, although some made it to Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount, and even the minors. Instead, they were guys looking for an education through baseball.

Their destination most likely was Cal State Dominguez Hills, San Francisco State and Chico State, all Division II programs happy to save spots in their roster for Valley players who didn't bring extra baggage.

"I'm very, very picky about what kind of people I recruit," said Coach George Wing of Dominguez Hills. "I can't just yank a scholarship. They've got to go to class, they've got to do some community service. If we get a bad kid, it kind of reflects on [the junior college coach]."

Said Buck Taylor, a longtime assistant at San Francisco State, which has four players from Valley's team last season: "These kids are great kids. They're hard workers, they get it done in the classroom. We're very pleased."

Sometimes, a rotten apple slips by. Wing said a former Valley player he recruited didn't fit the profile, an apparent exception to the guys Johnson normally recommends to coaches.

A few former Valley players are LAPD officers, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and teachers.

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