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Coach Conquistador

Longtime El Camino Real softball skipper Neils Ludlow has team vying for yet another City Section championship.

May 25, 1999|DAVE DESMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — The championships. The streaks. The monotony.

The pressure of being El Camino Real High.

Year in and year out, no softball team in California has so thoroughly dominated its section.

The top-seeded Conquistadores (23-3) will play for their 12th City Section title in 16 years when they face No. 2-seeded Carson (24-7) today at 4:30 p.m. at UCLA's Easton Stadium.

And losing isn't an option.

"Everybody expects us to win all the time," said Coach Neils Ludlow, who has a 287-52 record in 15 seasons. "I learned a long time ago that it's 'What have you done for me lately?' What we've done in the past doesn't count right now."

But it sure adds to the aura and tradition.

El Camino Real has won league championships 16 of the last 17 seasons and sent countless players to the college ranks.

And throughout, high expectations have been part of the package.

"There is that pressure to beat everybody because that's what they've done in the past here," senior shortstop Cara Blumfield said.

Beth Silverman-Kaminkow helped build that reputation. She was a pitcher for the Conquistadores through much of their state-record 73-game winning streak from 1984-87.

"I wouldn't want anybody to experience the pressure we went through," she said. "Knowing every game could be the game that gets you, thinking in the back of your head, 'Could this be it?' If you think too much about it, it isn't fun anymore."

Almost anyone who has played softball at El Camino Real can recite Ludlow's "Target Speech," repeated every season and designed to keep the Conquistadores focused.

"You have a target on the back of your uniforms," Blumfield recites.

"Everyone's gunning for you because you're No. 1, because you're El Camino," Silverman-Kaminkow recalls.

Former shortstop-pitcher Tami Jones also remembers.

"I heard that speech a lot while I was there, too," said Jones, now a junior at Northwestern. "It seems to be working, though."

It didn't last year, when El Camino Real lost to San Pedro, 5-0, in the 4-A final, its second loss in 13 championship games.

"I almost feel like we failed last year, that we let a lot of people down," Ludlow said.

This year, the Conquistadores appear determined to retake their place atop the section, as well as claim their place among the best in school history.

El Camino Real is 18-0 against City competition, and has outscored those opponents, 135-1.

Ludlow likens this team to his 1986 squad, a sparkling defensive team that won the City title with a 19-0 record.

Blumfield, who has committed to Boston College, and cannon-armed sophomore catcher Christina Enea may be remembered alongside Karen Walker, Chrissy Peck, Jen Fleming, Jennifer Gould, Ramona Shelburne, Jones and Silverman-Kaminkow as the best to play at El Camino Real.

But pitchers Ashley Redlin (16-3) and Stephanie Frasco (7-0), second baseman Jacqui Goodchild and right fielder Kristi Nicklaus also were All-City selections last year and have played prominent roles.

Center fielder Becky Hernandez, third baseman Vanessa Laguire and first baseman Lily Landers were All-West Valley League selections.

Postseason awards have become routine at El Camino Real, which has landed more than 60 players on the All-City team since Ludlow took over in 1985.

What has made El Camino Real so good for so long?

It benefits from one of the region's best feeder systems, the West Valley Girls' Softball League, and the combination of open enrollment and word of mouth hasn't hurt, either.

"If I had kids, I'd want to send them to El Camino," said Blumfield, who transferred from Calabasas after her freshman year.

Senior right-hander Redlin, who will start her third consecutive final in the circle, lives within sight of Cleveland High, but chose El Camino Real partly because of its softball reputation.

"It just feeds on itself," said Chatsworth Coach Andrea Rochetti, who played at El Camino Real in 1987. "It just keeps going and going."

Rochetti is among five former El Camino Real players to become coaches, a good talent pool to one day replace Ludlow, 60.

Current and past players have speculated in recent weeks that a championship today might be the perfect send-off for Ludlow.

"He won't say if or when he will retire," Redlin said. "But he's accomplished everything he needs to accomplish."

At least for now, Ludlow doesn't want to be a distraction from the matter at hand.

"A lot of things have gone through my mind," he said. "I recognize that I'm getting near the end, the time that I step aside and give someone else the opportunity to have this wonderful experience. I wouldn't want to say anything more than that at this point."

Unless, of course, it's another speech to the team.

City Section Softball Championship

El Camino Real vs. Carson

4:30 p.m. at Easton Stadium, UCLA

TV: KLCS (cable), live

THROUGH THE YEARS

Neils Ludlow's record:

1985: 19-0*

1986: 19-0*

1987: 18-1

1988: 22-4*

1989: 23-2*

1990: 23-3*

1991: 17-6*

1992: 13-9

1993: 16-8

1994: 20-4*

1995: 19-2

1996: 17-4*

1997: 19-3*

1998: 19-3

1999: 23-3

* denotes City Section championship

Career record: 287-52

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