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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Sign of the Times

Early Success Indicated That Coach Jon Strauss Had Turned Around Baseball Program at Glendale College

March 15, 2001|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — Signs, signs, everywhere signs.

Even before the baseball season started, back during fall and winter league games, Glendale College was sending clear messages about its potential.

"Once I saw the team, I knew we were going to be good," shortstop Jimmy Stone said. "We barely lost any games in the fall."

The Vaqueros have barely lost any games this season. Going into a Western State Conference Southern Division game against Valley today at Stengel Field in Glendale, they are 13-3, including 4-2 in division play.

They lost at Canyons, 12-6, on Tuesday and dropped two games behind division leader Citrus, their second defeat in three games. But the Vaqueros are not panicking.

"They go out expecting to win," first-year Coach Jon Strauss said. "This team doesn't get frustrated or desperate when they are down in a game."

Perhaps that's because of the attitude Strauss, 28, has brought to the program. A former player at Glendale High, Canyons and Long Beach State, where he later was an assistant to Coach Dave Snow, Strauss is Glendale's fifth coach since 1995.

He replaced Chris Zavatsky, who replaced Danny Barrett, who replaced Andy Nieto, who replaced Steve Coots. Zavatsky left after one season to become an assistant at Santa Clara.

It typically takes more time to turn around a program that has undergone so many coaching changes. But Strauss has the Vaqueros, who won the division title in 1999 and tied for first place with Pierce in 1998, on the championship trail after they sputtered last year to a 17-26 record.

"There's a different chemistry on the team this year," sophomore center fielder Jon Horwitz said. "We put in a lot of hard work, but Coach Strauss makes it enjoyable. You want to win for him. Last year, we weren't as happy, we weren't as motivated to win."

The Vaqueros were tested early. They lost the opener to Harbor, 14-9, but rebounded the next day with an 8-7 victory over Santa Ana, ranked No. 1 in the nation, and a 14-3 victory over East L.A., ranked No. 4 in the state. A day later, they defeated the state's No. 5-ranked team, Cerritos, 5-4, in 10 innings.

Catcher-outfielder Evan Shahak, a freshman from Arcadia High, hit a three-run home run against Harbor, a two-run blast against Santa Ana and two home runs against East L.A. Sophomore second baseman John Manuel had four hits, including a home run, against East L.A.

Glendale reeled off 12 consecutive victories after the opener before losing last week to Pierce, 3-2, in 11 innings. The Vaqueros, unnoticed and unheralded in the preseason, are ranked No. 8 in the state.

"Jon has done a good job," Pierce Coach Bob Lofrano said. "We faced them twice and they seem to play well together."

Although the bats have cooled, dropping from a team batting average of .350 to .281 since WSC play started, they are not altogether silent.

Shahak is batting .438 in WSC games, catcher Ryan Noll and first baseman Fernando Valenzuela are at .333, and Manuel is at .304.

"There are a lot of good pitchers in this conference," Strauss said.

Strauss believes some of those pitchers are on his club.

"We've gotten quality starts," Strauss said. "When we've had to use the bullpen, the guys have responded well."

Right-hander Kevin Welch, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Pasadena City, is the ace, with left-handers Scott Weber and Eddie Camacho right behind.

In WSC play, Welch is 1-0 with a 1.59 earned-run average and Camacho, a freshman from Sylmar, has no decisions and a 3.00 ERA. Weber was 1-0 with a 1.17 ERA before losing to Canyons on Tuesday.

"I've got a guy in the bullpen right now, [freshman] Ivan Lopez [from Sylmar], who is a hell of a pitcher," Strauss said. "He could be a starter and would be a starter on other teams, but I just had to make a decision."

Strauss apparently hasn't made too many poor ones. Stone, who transferred from defending state champion Riverside City to play closer to his Pasadena home, likes Strauss' relaxed but serious approach.

Manuel, from Poly, also praises the team's new atmosphere after recovering from a pulled hamstring that cost him the second half of last season.

"We got a bunch of guys who want to win," Manuel said. "I'm enjoying this a lot."

Horwitz, a former Notre Dame standout who expects to play at Valley on Saturday after missing several games because of a pulled hamstring, is looking for bigger things from the Vaqueros.

"I feel we could be so much better," Horwitz said.

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