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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Honeymoon Is Over for LaCour

April 09, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Three summers ago, Matt LaCour revealed all anyone needed to know about character, commitment and maturity.

He was coaching Chatsworth High's American Legion baseball team. He was 25 and hoping to impress some high school principal, trying to show that he could be a successful head coach.

Chatsworth qualified for the World Series in Middletown, Conn. LaCour chose not to go.

Why would he pass on the coaching opportunity of a lifetime?

"It didn't take much thinking," he said.

LaCour loved coaching, but he loved his fiancee more. His wedding and honeymoon in Italy had been planned for months. There would be no postponement.

"The players had a good time with the dilemma I was in," LaCour said. "But there was no other choice to make. Baseball takes a precedence in our lives, but that one week it had to take a back seat."

LaCour finally got his head coaching position last summer at four-time City champion Woodland Hills El Camino Real. He's 28, happily married, has a 1-year-old daughter and is passing along life lessons to a Conquistador team that is 14-2 and has won 13 consecutive games.

This is the week LaCour might feel more nervous than he did during his wedding week. El Camino Real is scheduled to play unbeaten Chatsworth (16-0), his alma mater, on Wednesday at Chatsworth, if the City Section allows it. The school bus drivers' strike already forced cancellation of Monday's first meeting between the schools and is causing frustration levels to rise.

"We're willing to play the game in my backyard," Chatsworth Athletic Director Fluke Fluker said. "We're fuming. We might be the No. 1 team in the nation and we can't play."

LaCour was Chatsworth Coach Tom Meusborn's top assistant for four years. They are like brothers and still talk three or four times a week.

The schools have combined to win seven City championships since 1990. Anytime they play, it's a playoff atmosphere. Putting LaCour and Meusborn on opposite sides only adds to the intrigue.

"Me and Coach Meusborn are pretty intense guys and I expect our teams to play pretty intense," LaCour said.

Said Meusborn: "I think Matt has them back on track. I'm already impressed."

Chatsworth's players didn't want to lose LaCour, especially to their West Valley League rivals, but they're happy for him.

"It was like, 'You traitor,'" pitcher Justin Cassel said. "But I think it's good for him to come out of Coach Meusborn's shadow and establish himself as a great coach. But we still want to whip him."

If anyone knows how to beat ace left-hander Joe Guntz, who's 30-0 lifetime, it should be LaCour. He was Chatsworth's pitching coach and called all the pitches for Guntz last season.

"He claims he knows everything about me," Guntz said, "but I have an extra trick up my sleeve."

Said LaCour: "I don't think I have any particular advantage. It's not a matter of his physical stuff that allows him to win 30 games in a row. It's his mental outlook. You're not going to faze him. You have to execute."

Having LaCour and Meusborn on opposite sides has created vigorous competition. Neither will back down in trying to top the other. Chatsworth got a new $36,000 scoreboard this year, and El Camino Real plans to add a similar one next season.

Meusborn spends hours making sure his field is immaculate, with the infield grass almost as fine as that of a putting green. LaCour spends even more time dragging his infield and cutting grass, trying to make it equal to Chatsworth's.

"He grooms that field like he does his hair," El Camino Real track coach Vic Lepisto said. "We don't know how his wife puts up with him."

It's clear that the time LaCour and Meusborn spent together was good for both. LaCour learned how to build a top program, how to raise funds for special projects, how to be organized and make tough decisions.

LaCour taught Meusborn how to relate better to his players and calmed his fears about players not performing well in games if they don't practice perfect.

They were a tough combination to beat, one that helped Chatsworth make it to the finals at Dodger Stadium three times in four years, winning twice.

Now it's the pupil taking on the teacher.

"It's going to be intense on the field and may get ugly once in a while, but it's not personal," LaCour said. "It's baseball. I'm never going to be as stone-faced as Coach Meusborn. I think I got him a little fired up and he calmed me a little down."

El Camino Real and Chatsworth have learned not to put too much emphasis on their league meetings, because the schools have ended their season four times playing each other for the City title.

"That would be a great dream," Guntz said of a fifth meeting.

LaCour has no out-of-town trips planned for June 4.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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