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County Has Tough Act to Follow

Baseball: University, La Quinta and Villa Park are among favorites, but last year's success will be hard to duplicate.


Orange County baseball teams will be hard-pressed to surpass the playoff success of last season, when El Dorado, Corona del Mar and Calvary Chapel won Southern Section titles.

All three are back in the playoffs, but none is expected to contend.

This time around, University, La Quinta and Villa Park are the teams to beat. The Trojans and Aztecs, both top seeds, are favored to win Divisions II and IV, respectively. The second-seeded Spartans have an excellent shot in Division III.

No county teams are seeded in Divisions I and V, though. Any real success in these brackets would be a bonus.

Here's a look at each division:

Division I--This bracket is little more than a logjam of 17 first-place teams. It is so saturated with league champions that two of them, Downey Warren and Bellflower St. John Bosco, meet in the first round Friday. So let's get this straight: The Braves won the Serra League and were rewarded . . . with a first-round road game against a league champion? "That was disappointing," acknowledged Bill Clark, the Southern Section assistant commissioner in charge of baseball. . . . Fountain Valley, which for much of the season reigned supreme in Orange County baseball, is stuck with a wild-card game today at Paramount. A Baron victory would set up an intriguing first-round matchup against Irvine. . . . Mater Dei on Friday travels to Bell Gardens, which has a one-man wrecking crew in Sal Camarena. The Lancer pitcher went 9-1 in league play with a 1.19 earned-run average and hit a team-high .445. The Monarchs will rely on catcher Josh Hansen (.473 average, 11 home runs, 46 runs batted in) to break through against Bell Gardens, ranked fifth in the latest division poll. . . . Los Alamitos, which hosts Oxnard on Friday, closed the regular season with six consecutive victories and could challenge top-seeded Arcadia in the upper half of the bracket. . . . Esperanza plays at Fontana Miller, which has won the Citrus Belt League the last three seasons.

Division II--Top-seeded University set a school record for wins in a season with 22 and went undefeated in the Pacific Coast League for the first time. Trojan Coach Chris Conlin doesn't intend to change his team's winning formula in the playoffs. "Anything we did to get here," Colin said, "we'll keep doing." University plays the winner of today's wild-card game between Aliso Niguel and Trabuco Hills on Friday in the first round. . . . A team to watch is Mission Viejo, which should be the favorite every time John Hudgins takes the mound. Hudgins pitched two no-hitters and led the South Coast League in strikeouts with 124 during the regular season. He's also 10-1 with a 0.56 ERA. The Diablos host Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, ranked 10th in the division, in the first round. . . . Sunny Hills faces an uphill battle in its first-round game at Corona Centennial. The Huskies, ranked seventh in the division, have two hitters batting over .500. First baseman Sean Dunne is hitting .522 and pitcher Mike Stodolka leads the team with a .576 average. Stodolka is 8-0 on the mound with 89 strikeouts and a minuscule 0.65 ERA. . . . Kennedy Coach Chris Pascal's team is peaking at the right time. The Fighting Irish have won six consecutive games and eight of nine to clinch their first league title since 1993 and their first Empire League title ever. Pascal credits his team's defense, which has made one error in the last three games. The Fighting Irish didn't get much a break in their draw, though. They host Santa Maria Righetti, ranked ninth in the division.

Division III--How far defending champion El Dorado makes it in its bid to repeat will hinge on which Golden Hawk team shows up. Will it be the one that underachieved in the early stages of the season, or the one that looked much stronger down the stretch? Foothill Coach Vince Brown, whose Knights play at El Dorado in the first round, is hoping for the former. . . . One of the best pitching matchups in any division could come when La Habra's Kyle Ballard faces Santiago's Brian Pilkington in the first round. . . . Brea Olinda could face second-seeded Villa Park in the second round, but as Wildcat Coach Steve Hiskey says, "You look too far forward in this [bracket] and you'll be packing your bags." Brea ace Mike Davern's bags are all packed for the Wildcats' first-round game at Cerritos Gahr.

Division IV--If top-seeded La Quinta gets past Western in the first round, the Aztecs might have a shot at redemption in the second round against Corona del Mar. The Sea Kings defeated La Quinta last season in a semifinal game en route to winning the division title. Of course, Corona del Mar, with only 13 wins to its credit, is a far lesser team this time around. . . . Bolsa Grande has the toughest road among the five county teams in the bracket. The Matadors play at fourth-seeded Monrovia in the first round.

Division V--If Laguna Beach fails to score a run in its first-round game at Capistrano Valley Christian, you'd still have to consider the Artists' postseason a success. Remember, Laguna Beach is making its first playoff appearance since 1963. Of course, Artist Coach Mike Schubert won't say his team is just happy to be here; he's looking to make a larger dent in the history books. But Laguna Beach will have to get past Eagle pitcher Thomas Grove, who's 7-0 with a 0.50 ERA. He's also hitting .539.

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