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A Magic Combination

The 1978 Servite baseball team ranks as one of the best in county history.

May 04, 1999|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Witt was upset with himself.

The senior right-hander had led Servite to its first Southern Section 4-A baseball championship game, against Arcadia. He had a 1-0 lead after two innings, only to a let the Apaches tie the score in the third.

"I was pumped up pretty good," Witt said. "But their first two guys each drive the ball into the gap and they score. I'm thinking to myself 'Oh no.' "

Witt settled down and pitched a three-hitter. Servite went on to a 6-1 victory.

That title, won in 1978, is the only baseball championship Servite has won. But more than 20 years later, that 24-3 Servite squad is considered by some to be the best high school baseball team to come out of Orange County.

Mike Curran remembers that team well. Curran, now the Esperanza baseball coach, coached Santa Fe Springs St. Paul then. The Swordsmen were the only team to have an edge on Servite that season.

"Looking back, they are even more impressive," said Curran, whose team gave Servite two of its three losses in 1978. "Even the No. 7 hitter was slamming balls off the wall."

It's no wonder Curran and others remain impressed.

All nine of Servite's starters went on to play college or pro baseball. Witt and shortstop/pitcher Steve Buechele, the team's cornerstones, became solid major leaguers.

Witt won all 14 games in which he pitched and was the Southern Section 4-A player of the year in 1978. Drafted that year in the fourth round by the Angels, Witt reached the majors with them in 1981, and won 117 games for the Angels and Yankees before an elbow injury forced his retirement in 1993.

Buechele, a junior on the 1978 Servite team, turned down an offer from the White Sox to attend Stanford in 1979. He signed with the Texas Rangers as a fifth-round draft pick in 1982 and played 11 seasons with the Rangers, Pirates and Cubs before retiring in 1995. He averaged .245 in his career, with 137 home runs and 547 RBIs.

Coach Bob Ickes' Mater Dei team also faced Servite in Angelus League play that season.

"That team was extremely cocky," Ickes said. "But they could back it up. They played at a much higher level. They

expected you to try and reach their level because they never played down to your level."

Witt, now a volunteer assistant for the Dana Hills baseball team, looks back on those days fondly.

"Position by position, you wouldn't find a much better team than us on the field," Witt said. "And off the field, we hung together. We were pretty good friends. Most of us stay in touch today."

Buechele, who now lives in Arlington, Texas, said the team "was one of those flukes that come along every so often. We had good players everywhere on the field."

Servite's other starters that season--Ed Farrell at first base, second baseman Doug Meyers, third baseman Stewart Stempniak, left fielder Tom Smith, center fielder Randy Day, right fielder Paul Mazzarella and catcher Mark Pirruccello--also fared well after graduation.

After attending Orange Coast College, Farrell and Day played major college baseball for Harvard and Texas, respectively. Meyers played at Nevada, and Stempniak and Smith attended UC Riverside, where they played on the 1982 NCAA Division II national champion team.

Mazzarella went to Notre Dame and Pirruccello to Cal State Fullerton. As a freshman, Pirruccello played on the Titans' 1979 NCAA Division I championship team. He is still Fullerton's all-time career home run leader (50).

Pirruccello, Smith, and Day signed pro contracts but did not reach the majors. Pirruccello, now the chief financial officer for Grand Casino Mille Lacs in Baxter, Minn., had his baseball career cut short by a rotator cuff injury.

Smith, a vice president with the Gaylord Meat Co. in Fullerton, said Servite was "a collection of good athletes and personalities that meshed. What defined us was the absolute knowledge that we would win every game.

"The confidence of that group--I was never on another team in any sport when everybody knew we would win. We didn't know how we would win, but we knew the end result was a 'W.' "

Witt the Star

Witt was Servite's most dominant player. Pirruccello said catching him was a joy, but trying to hit against Witt was a pain.

"His curve broke about three feet," Pirruccello said. "But it wasn't that difficult to catch because he had such good control. You never felt sorry for the opponents but you could sense their frustration. It made for an easier game."

But just as critical as the players to Servite's success was the Friars' coaching staff, led by Matt McCann.

Only 23 at the time, McCann was coaching junior varsity baseball at Sunny Hills when he was hired by Servite in the fall of 1976. Before McCann arrived, baseball ran a poor third to Friar fans after football and basketball.

"I met with the team for the first time just before the Christmas break," said McCann, now a psychologist.

"I didn't know what I had. I only knew that Servite had won only one Angelus League baseball championship in the previous 16 years, and that was shared."

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