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Confidence Defines Conejo Valley

Its experienced players, coached to expect the unexpected, begin their Little League World Series run tonight.

August 20, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

He had pitched only seven innings in his team's 16 games, but as Tyler Karp toed the pitching rubber in a key situation in the Little League West Region championship game, he was certain of his ability.

"I was just thinking, 'Don't let the catcher get any passed balls,' " he said.

Crouched behind the plate, John Lister was in control of his nerves -- but wasn't sure about the inexperienced pitcher on the mound.

"Expect the unexpected," he told himself.

In the end, neither Karp nor Lister flinched, instead working in tandem to strike out the batter and keep the tying run on third.

The Conejo Valley all-stars then added a couple of insurance runs and Karp retired six of the final seven hitters to preserve the 8-5 victory and send his team to the Little League World Series.

Conejo Valley (17-0) will open group play tonight against Lincoln, R.I., in Williamsport, Pa.

Karp's relief effort last Friday provided the most recent example of the confidence that has become a trademark of the Conejo Valley team. It's an attitude that began surfacing two years ago, when most of the current team won the Southern California championship as 10-year-olds.

Since then, the league has gotten even deeper thanks to the addition of talented players such as Lister and Cody Thomson, who have combined for 13 home runs.

Followers of the team credit Manager Tom Ginther and coaches Frank Leon, Rick Brower and Jim Barrett for the team's swagger.

Ginther said his players have been trained to handle any situation. Often, that means taking a more serious approach than his counterparts.

"I've seen a lot of coaches that are so happy-go-lucky, they just want to go out and have fun," said Ginther, 47, whose son, Tim, bats leadoff and plays center field. "My philosophy is you have to put in the effort while you're out there and develop players. I'm there for a purpose."

Ginther, who has been on disability from his job as a grocery manager at Whole Foods Market for the last 22 months, even brings his post as coach home with him. Nine years ago, when his oldest son, Zach, was beginning Little League, he converted his modest backyard into a batting practice area complete with 70-foot batting cage, tee area and soft-toss netting. The team often meets at his home for hitting practice before assembling at nearby Conejo Community Park to work on everything from infield pop flies to executing rundowns on defense.

The well-rounded skills of Conejo Valley's players have been an important factor in the postseason, especially in its last two games when a key injury forced Ginther to reconfigure his infield.

Conejo Valley has outscored its opponents, 134-20, and its pitchers have limited opponents to 19 earned runs in 96 innings, striking out 173 and walking 32.

The defense is responsible for only one unearned run, and the batters are hitting close to .400 with 23 home runs spread among seven players.

"They can hit and they can pitch," said Russ Hall, manager of Visalia National, which lost to Conejo Valley in group play and in a semifinal at the West Region tournament.

"You cannot throw a fastball by them," he said.

Chris Constantino, who is expected to start for Rhode Island tonight, is likely to try anyway. He's a 5-foot-10, 180-pound right-hander who struck out 16 of 18 -- the games are six innings -- in a New England Region game.

But Constantino will be just the latest tough test Conejo Valleyhas faced.

In its opening game, the team had just two hits in a 2-0 victory over El Rio of Oxnard. In the championship game of the section tournament, it defeated Saticoy, 2-1, on a game-winning single in the last inning. Against Luckie Waller of Chula Vista in the Southern California championships, the game was scoreless until Conejo Valley broke through, 2-0, in extra innings.

In each of its final two games in the West Region championships, Conejo Valley's opponent cut the deficit to one run -- but Danny Leon twice answered with a home run in the next at-bat.

*

Little League World Series

* When: Today through Aug. 29

* Where: Williamsport, Pa.

* U.S. bracket: Pool A -- Thousand Oaks (Conejo Valley East); Lincoln, R.I.; Morganton, N.C.; Davenport, Iowa. Pool B -- Preston, Md.; Redmond, Wash.; Owensboro, Ky.; Richmond, Texas.

* International bracket: Pool C -- Panama City, Panama; Ottawa, Canada; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Kutno, Poland. Pool D -- North Marianas, Saipan; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; Guadalupe, Mexico; Willemstad, Curacao.

* Conejo Valley's schedule: Today vs. Lincoln, R.I., 5 p.m., ESPN; Sunday vs. Morganton, N.C., noon, ESPN; Monday vs. Davenport, Iowa, noon, ESPN.

* U.S. championship game: Aug. 28, 4:30 p.m., Channel 7

* World Series championship game: Aug. 29, 3:30 p.m., Channel 7

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