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Eastern Showdown

Once Again, Rivals Sylmar and Poly Are Preparing for Their Series With the East Valley League Title at Stake

May 04, 1999|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Both teams circled the dates in their calendars long ago, much like they have done for more than a decade.

For the baseball teams at Sylmar and Poly highs, there's no week more important in the season, no bigger motivator, than the first two East Valley League games against each other every year.

That time is here again.

"We've been looking ahead for a while," said senior Ivan Hernandez, Sylmar's ace right-hander. "It's going to be intense. Everybody's going to be pumped up."

Hernandez takes his 5-2 record and 1.78 earned-run average to the mound at Sylmar today at 3 p.m. in the first of three games against the Parrots. He'll face senior right-hander Carlos Reguengo, who is 9-2 with a 1.85 ERA.

"I've been training for [Hernandez] all year," Reguengo said.

Added to the confrontation this week, like so many times in the past, is a scramble for the league title between Poly (18-6, 11-1 in league play) and Sylmar (16-5, 10-2), with Grant (16-5, 10-2) thrown in the mix this time.

Sylmar travels to Poly on Thursday and on May 18, their last league meeting. Because of realignment next season, the schools are headed for different leagues, ending one of the more meaningful league rivalries in the Valley.

To coaches Gary Donatella of Sylmar and Chuck Schwal of Poly, the rivalry matches those between Chatsworth and El Camino Real in the West Valley League, Kennedy and Granada Hills in the North Valley, Notre Dame and Crespi in the Mission, and Thousand Oaks and Westlake in the Marmonte.

"This is the last year it's going to mean something, and it's a lot different when it means something," Schwal said. "Playing Sylmar is one of the more exciting things for us."

Donatella feels the same way about Poly. He says the matchups have been hard-fought, sometimes volatile, but never dull. Like in 1991, a season he remembers well.

That year, the Parrots had an 18-game winning streak and were top-ranked in the state in Division 4-A under Coach Jerry Cord when they traveled to Sylmar, which trailed Poly by two games with four to play.

Poly led, 5-0, after one inning before the Spartans rallied to win, 7-6. Two days later at Poly, Sylmar completed the sweep with an 11-3 victory, pulling into a tie for first place with the Parrots, each with a 13-2 record.

They each won their last two games and finished as league co-champions before being eliminated in the playoffs.

"That was probably one of the most memorable years [in the rivalry]," Donatella said.

The series traditionally lends credibility to the league, which detractors claim is weaker and lacks the luster of the West Valley and North Valley leagues.

This season, the critics say Sylmar, Poly and Grant got healthy by pounding Mid-Valley League weaklings in Valley Pac-8 Conference games. Reseda (11-10) is the only Mid-Valley team with a winning record.

"I can understand why we don't get the respect," Schwal said. "This year, especially, the competition has been down. . . . What we have to be measured on is how we do in the playoffs."

Well, here's the tale of the tape.

Poly is the only East Valley team to reach the City 4-A title game at Dodger Stadium since Grant won the championship in 1986. The Parrots lost in the final in 1987, 1992 and 1996.

Since 1990, when Chatsworth was City champion, the West Valley League has made playing at Chavez Ravine virtually an annual event. El Camino Real has won four City titles, including the last two, and Chatsworth was runner-up three times.

Donatella dismisses the put-downs, preferring to focus on what he can control.

"I've heard [the criticism] so often that I just turn it off," Donatella said. "I don't make too big a deal about it."

The bigger deal, Donatella and Schwal say, is preparing their teams to play each other. They already agreed to continue the rivalry with nonleague games in coming seasons, starting next year with a home-and-away series.

"To be truthful, I really prepare harder for [Sylmar] than I do for other teams," Schwal said.

At Sylmar, senior third baseman Sam Ponce said the school is fired up about facing Poly.

"People ask us, 'When are you playing Poly?,' " Ponce said. "Our goal has been Dodger Stadium. I've been motivated since the beginning. . . . These games with Poly mean a lot."

Nobody knows that better than Donatella, who last year guided the Spartans to the semifinals, where they lost to El Camino Real.

"The players from each team respect the kids from the other team and their coaches," he said.

"It was always a pleasure coaching against Jerry [Cord] and Chuck [Schwal]. When I get done coaching in a couple of years, those are the games I'll miss the most."

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