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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Koegel's Choice of Career Is Going Up in Thin Air

March 04, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Always count on the service academies to come up with the strangest ways to prepare their athletes for sports competition.

Johnny Koegel, a former El Camino Real High pitcher and sophomore at the Air Force Academy, didn't go to Cape Cod or Alaska for summer baseball.

Instead, his assignment was eating rabbits, beetles, crickets and ants during survival training in the Colorado wilderness. And he didn't earn $1 million or get to appear on Jeopardy, either.

"Ants taste real good," he said. "They taste like lemon drops. The fattest ant you can find tasted best."

Perhaps other schools should send their pitchers into a forest to diet on insects, because Koegel has never pitched better. Last week, he was selected the Mountain West Conference pitcher of the week after throwing a complete game with 10 strikeouts against Memphis in the championship game of the Service Academies Classic in Millington, Tenn.

It was Koegel's first complete game since his sophomore year of high school.

Koegel's former El Camino Real teammate, Woody Cliffords of Pepperdine, would break out laughing if he knew what Koegel has endured.

"It's a different college experience than my buddy, Woody, is having," Koegel said.

It started out with making it through boot camp and months of demanding physical, emotional and academic challenges his freshman year at Air Force.

"I think the hardest thing I had to do was Recognition Week," Koegel said. "It's three days in the middle of March. Those three days I've never been pushed more physically or emotionally.

"You yell out all the knowledge we had to memorize. It's exhausting. You can't take a break. Afterward, you have so much confidence and are so proud of yourself."

Koegel is being prepared for a minimum five-year military stint, and his summer survival course was designed to teach him what to do if he is stranded behind enemy lines.

"I lost 12 pounds," he said.

At one point, he and two partners had to elude pursuers trying to capture them. They had a compass, map, no food and each other. His pursuers had night-vision goggles. Koegel's days growing up in Woodland Hills provided help.

"[My parents] taught me how to sneak in after curfew and not get caught," he said.

Koegel had plenty of college options, with a 4.0 grade-point average and 1420 score on the SAT. He was El Camino Real's starting pitcher as a sophomore in the 1997 City Championship game at Dodger Stadium.

But the dream of flying made Air Force the perfect destination.

He once said he wanted to become the pilot of the Space Shuttle and "put the American flag on Martian soil."

His goal has changed.

"I think I want to stay on earth and fly F-15Es," he said.

He received his first flying experience last summer in gliders.

"It was a blast," he said. "It's a great program because it's the first chance most of us have flying and motivates us for the next three years."

He pitched sparingly last season for Air Force but improved during the winter and is the team's No. 4 starter. He has added a sidearm delivery to his repertoire.

"I really worked hard on coming over the top and throwing submarine pitches," he said.

Pitching for Air Force might be unique in college baseball just because of the taunts from opponents.

Giving up a home run produces all kinds of ingenious responses, such as, "That one is in orbit, see if you can track it."

And Air Force pitchers do give up home runs playing in Colorado Springs, where the elevation is 7,200 feet.

"Coors Field is nothing," Koegel said. "The ball flies out of here."

Then there's the reaction of opponents when they play Air Force for the first time.

A Wichita State player said, "We thought you guys would show up in F-16s instead of a clunky old bus."

Instead of practicing Wednesday, Koegel spent most of the time shoveling snow at the baseball field.

Koegel said he wouldn't trade his Air Force experience.

"I love it," he said. "I miss the baseball guys from El Camino a lot. We still keep in touch. Every time I go home, they're the first I call. But I'm used to living away from home and my best friends in the world are now here."

What happens if Koegel develops into a standout college pitcher?

"I don't see a 5-10, 170-pound pitcher being very draftable," he said. "I'll stick to airplanes. We're here to play college baseball, but we have a higher calling afterward."

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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