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CALIFORNIA

All-Stars Trigger Memories of '96

Conejo Valley's Little League World Series trip was made earlier by a Moorpark team.

August 20, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

When the Conejo Valley All-Stars take the field today in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., it will be the first time a Ventura County team has played in the internationally televised tournament since 1996.

Thousand Oaks resident Erik Johnson, 21, remembers just what it felt like.

"It's exciting, an adrenaline rush," said Johnson, a standout pitcher on the Moorpark team in 1996 and now an outfielder for UC Irvine. "You don't really understand the importance they put on 12-year-olds playing baseball."

Johnson and some of his former teammates are taking a special interest in this week's series, which kicks off today with the Conejo Valley squad facing the best 11- and 12-year-olds from Lincoln, R.I., at 5 p.m. (PST).

Blake Sharpe, whose father was a coach on the Moorpark team, said playing in the 1996 series was an experience he will never forget.

"It's like every child's dream come true," said Sharpe, 20, who now plays shortstop and second base for USC. "When you play Little League ball, that's what you want to do, go to the World Series."

Pitcher and outfielder David Burckin, 20, agrees.

"Even though I'm older and there were many more years of playing after that, going to the World Series is probably my favorite baseball memory of all time," said Burckin, who pitched for two years at Moorpark College and is now a sociology major at San Diego State.

The atmosphere in Williamsport is different, the athletes said. Rather than local fields, the games are played in a stadium with seating for more than 15,000 and televised on ESPN to a worldwide audience.

Despite the added attention, Johnson said he does not remember feeling extra pressure. Other than the occasional moment of jitters, the former pitcher said he and his 11 teammates remained focused.

"Our team exuded confidence," Johnson said. "We were just having fun for the summer. The chemistry of our team was unbelievable."

Gary Sharpe, Blake's father, said 1996 was a tough year for the Moorpark boys. They had to come from behind at the western regional contest in San Bernardino by playing a trio of games.

They first won a 16-inning game, begun the evening before against Issaquah, Wash., by a score of 2 to 1. Johnson hit a double to tie the game, and Sharpe hit a solo home run to end it. Moorpark beat Pearl City, Hawaii, twice later that afternoon to advance to the World Series.

"We were the first team to come back from the losers' bracket," said Johnson, who turned 13 that day. "You name it, we were setting records all over the place." It turned out to be a long day for the team, one that left only a few hours' sleep before a bus took them to Los Angeles International Airport for the flight to Williamsport and the World Series.

But Moorpark's hopes ended after three games when it was defeated, 10-2, by Panama City, Fla. Johnson pitched the one game the team won.

Moorpark tied for third place with a Rhode Island team that advanced because it allowed fewer runs in the series.

Despite its loss, the Moorpark team returned home to a hero's welcome. Three limousines met the team at the airport and whisked it back to town, where thousands of well-wishers celebrated the boys' season at Arroyo Vista Community Park.

"When you get off the plane, you feel like a celebrity. People asking you for autographs. You feel like you are 'the man,' " said Burckin, who coached the freshman baseball team at Moorpark High School this spring.

If there is any advice that former coach Sharpe would give the Conejo Valley team playing today it would be to try to relax and appreciate the World Series experience,

"Be happy that you're there. You're one of thousands of teams that try to get there and you made it," he said. "Savor the moment and enjoy it while you can. It's a once-in-a-lifetime shot."

Sharpe said the Conejo Valley team has a strong lineup and could go all the way in Williamsport.

"They've got some big boys who really know how to knock it out of the park. The pitching is real tight. They've got everything," he said. "I think they are going to tear it up back there."

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