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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Athletes Better After a Breather

January 17, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

Ambitious high school athletes don't like to take breaks. They worry that others might pass them. It's particularly prevalent among spring-sport athletes.

There are softball pitchers who throw every day. There are baseball players who spend more time in the batting cage than they do brushing their teeth.

USC-bound third basemen Ian Stewart of Westminster La Quinta High played in more than 100 baseball games last year and had not taken a break in months.

"I just woke up one morning and my Dad said, 'Hey, you want to go to Hawaii?' " Stewart said.

Stewart's mother is a flight attendant, so the family can fly on standby at a moment's notice. He packed some clothes, left his bat and glove behind, and took off for Hawaii on Dec. 30, returning a week later.

"I just wanted to take a break, let my body and mind rest," he said. "It was an unbelievable trip."

He returned to the baseball field last week feeling refreshed after going nine days without touching a ball.

"I was kind of excited to get back playing," he said.

Teenage athletes should never forget the importance of an occasional break because it can work wonders for the mind and body. Sometimes parents are justified in hiding bats, balls and gloves in order to get their children to rest.

High school athletes with college ambitions had better understand they won't get many breaks after they graduate. Just ask Conor Jackson, a junior third baseman at California and former All-City infielder at Woodland Hills El Camino Real who could be a first-round draft choice in June.

"My last break was the summer before I left for college," Jackson said. "It's a year-round sport. Our fall ball is harder than the season."

Jackson went against the advice of many and didn't play scout ball his senior year at El Camino Real.

"In high school, you have people saying, 'You've got to play for this team and that team.' I didn't play all fall or summer and it was exactly what I needed," he said.

Alan Jaeger, a Woodland Hills-based trainer who works with American League Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito of the Oakland Athletics, said high school pitchers, in particular, must be wary of overthrowing.

"It's deadly," Jaeger said. "A lot of pitchers are ruined as eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders."

Even the hard-working Stewart has come to understand what a break offers.

"Whenever I get a chance to get a week off, I'm going back [to Hawaii]," he said.

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Woodland Hills Taft has reached the City Championship game in football five times in the last seven years. That means there should be plenty of quality candidates to replace Troy Starr, who resigned as the Toreadors' coach on Wednesday.

The coach Taft officials should pursue is Shane Cox, the 34-year-old, fourth-year coach at L.A. Fairfax. He turned a losing program into a winner, improved academic performance, established tremendous discipline and has been sending players on to four-year schools.

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Mark Trumbo, a 6-foot-4 junior pitcher-first baseman at Villa Park, has committed to USC even though he can't enroll until 2004.

Trumbo helped Villa Park win the Southern Section Division II championship last season as a sophomore.

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It's astonishing that so many quality high school kickers still have not received college scholarships.

There are college coaches who have lost games and, subsequently, jobs because of kicking blunders, but many don't know which kickers should be offered scholarships.

"The major problem is college coaches do not know enough about kicking to pull the trigger," said Chris Sailer, a private kicking coach and former All-American at UCLA.

"They are worried if they make a wrong decision, they'll have to live with the mistake for five years. There are not enough credible kicking sources out there to help college recruiters make educated decisions."

Meanwhile, top kickers go unsigned, including San Pedro punter Matt Dragich, who averaged 46.5 yards, and Arroyo Grande punter Billy Vinnedge, who averaged 48.1 yards.

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Glad to see nothing has changed at Compton Dominguez, where Russell Otis is back coaching basketball, transfers are checking in and school board members are spending more time watching games instead of worrying about the school's abysmal test scores.

The American dream is alive and thriving at Dominguez, where parents think basketball is either going to get their child a college scholarship or a customized $100,000 Hummer H2.

Good luck to all.

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

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