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On The Rise

Young Nucleus Leads Canyon's Climb Up Rankings

April 10, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are good, they are young and, last summer, they were rivals.

The nucleus of the Canyon High softball team is composed of players who were facing off against each other only seven months ago in the biggest game of the year for players their age.

Today, those 14-year-old division players have helped make Canyon one of the best teams in Orange County.

Two-thirds of the Comanches' starting lineup played last summer in the Amateur Softball Assn.'s national championship game for girls 14 and under. Five played for the champion California Cruisers and two for the runner-up Invasion.

"To have that many players [from a championship game] on one team is unusual," said Esperanza Coach Dennis Fox, who has four players from that Invasion team on his Aztec squad.

Canyon hasn't cornered the market on youth. Esperanza and El Modena are also young teams that appeared in the county's top-10 poll last season, and both were expected to make some noise this year.

However, Canyon has come out of nowhere to be the surprise of Orange County softball.

A few weeks into the season, Canyon's first appearance since 1996 in the sportswriters' top-10 poll was at No. 2, a most improbable place to make a first appearance. But the Comanches finished an impressive fourth at the Ramada Express Tournament of Champions and scored victories over perennial top-10 teams Los Alamitos and Pacifica, beating the latter, 7-0.

"That makes you wonder," Canyon Coach Lance Eddy said. "Are we that good, or is the other team not that good?"

The youngsters have made all the difference.

The two freshmen from the Invasion, Lisa Geer and Jessica Runge, alternate between first base and pitcher. The other players from that title game played for the Cruisers: designated hitter Laura Kimborowicz, second baseman Ashley Becker, catcher Erin Slettvet, and outfielder Sandra Burns. They are all sophomores. Left fielder Heather Slettvet is a freshman.

It's the kind of grouping that created some awkward moments on the high school team, and forced some adjustments too.

"I grew up with a few of them, met a few of them," Geer said. "It didn't take much to gel, but it was kind of weird playing with them instead of playing against them."

Said Erin Slettvet: "It was kind of odd at first. I had always seen them in a different uniform."

Last summer in Panama City, Fla., Geer wasn't pitching to Erin Slettvet, her catcher, but to Slettvet, the opposing batter.

And Slettvet hit a home run in the championship game that proved the decisive run in the Cruisers' 3-2 victory.

"It was a big-time rivalry that started in 12-and-under, when it was either them or us for the national title, and they beat us," said Erin Slettvet. "I've always wanted to hit a home run in a championship game. It was cool that I hit it off them, too. And Lisa lives right up the street from me. It was always, 'I'm going to beat you,' between her and me. She still gives me a hard time about it. She tells me it was a lucky hit.

"It wasn't a lucky hit."

Last season, Canyon had an 18-13 overall record but missed the playoffs because it finished fourth in the Century League with a 5-5 record.

This season, the Comanches are 13-5.

"We expect to win," Kimborowicz said. "That carries over from travel ball, that we can play with anybody, that we're as good as anybody, that we have what it takes to win."

Two of the Comanches' losses are to league-rival Foothill, 3-1, and 3-0. The Knights are the No. 1 team in Orange County and are considered one of the top teams in the nation.

"They're the toughest team from California that we've played," said Courtney Fossatti, a pitcher for Foothill whose only loss is to Tucson (Ariz.) Flowing Wells.

Canyon's young players have their veteran coach excited about the talent, but also working hard to mold it into a unit devoid of ego.

"Every day is an experience because they are young," said Eddy, who is in his 18th season at Canyon and has more than 300 victories.

"At a team meeting, we were talking about how we have to meet roles. We have four darn good pitchers, and we have to reduce that to three. And I told them, 'You aren't going to see your name in the paper all year because of the inning requirements [to qualify among statistical leaders], but if we combine the totals together, you'll be in the top five.' "

Those three pitchers are junior Lindsey Klabacha, who basically pitched every inning of every game the last two seasons, Runge and Geer. In Eddy's rotation, Klabacha and Geer will be starting pitchers, and Runge, a left-hander, will close every game.

"It was tough at first because I'm used to pitching my games and pitching complete games," Geer said. "I never had someone come in and relieve me. It was tough because I kept thinking [Eddy] was taking me out because I was doing bad."

That's hardly the case. Geer is 6-1, her only loss coming against top-ranked Foothill last week in the first game of Century League play.

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