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Eric Sondheimer

With Stanton, Notre Dame is an all-season contender

April 24, 2007|Eric Sondheimer

It takes a little pushing and prodding before Sherman Oaks Notre Dame baseball Coach Tom Dill is willing to choose his most memorable athletic moment involving USC-bound outfielder Mike Stanton.

"He's a highlight reel every three or four games," Dill said.

As if trying to build suspense, Dill mentions how the 6-foot-5, 217-pound Stanton sent 20 balls flying over the outfield fence with a wooden bat during a recent batting practice.

Then Dill tells the story of a line drive Stanton hit against Santa Fe Springs St. Paul.

"I first thought it would hit the pitcher in the head, then the center fielder and it ended up going out of the park," he said.

For a school that has produced a No. 1 draft pick in Tim Foli, a Cy Young Award winner in Jack McDowell, a high school All-American football player in Justin Fargas and a nationally recognized basketball coach in Jamie Dixon, Notre Dame is used to having individuals with exceptional athletic talent.

But Stanton has thrust himself into consideration as the best three-sport athlete in school history.

"Physically, he's incredible," said Kevin Rooney, Notre Dame's football coach and athletic director for 27 years.

In football, Stanton was an All-Southern Section defensive back-receiver who helped the Knights finish 11-1 and reach the Southern Section Pac-Five Division quarterfinals.

In basketball, he averaged 19.7 points, 13.2 rebounds, made all-league and led the team to a postseason upset of Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley and to the second round of the Division I-AA playoffs.

In baseball, he's batting .386 with eight home runs for a team that's competing for first place in the Mission League.

It's almost inevitable that Stanton will do something during a game or practice to leave people in awe.

"There were times in basketball we looked at him, 'Whoa' because his head was above the rim," Rooney said.

Basketball was considered Stanton's weakest sport, the one many tried to persuade him to give up so he could concentrate on baseball, his strongest and the one he intends to play at USC, provided he doesn't sign a professional contract.

Stanton refused to listen to those who think multiple-sport athletes hurt their chances for a college scholarship by risking injury and not devoting enough time to a single sport. He has viewed his high school experience as a chance to learn about his limitations and strengths, and have fun in the process.

"I didn't want to leave high school with any regrets," he said.

So he went from sport to sport, with the cooperation of his coaches. His baseball skills probably suffered the most because he has often started slowly as a hitter after coming out from basketball.

But playing three sports has also taught him skills that benefit each other.

"I have agility from playing football," he said. "I have the athleticism of basketball from jumping. Zoning in on a catch with football helps me read a pitch in baseball."

Said Dill: "He's fast, he hits for power, he hits for average. What more can you want?"

Jorge Piedra was Notre Dame's last great three-sport standout, graduating in 1997 after starring at quarterback, point guard and as a center fielder before making it to the major leagues with the Colorado Rockies.

There probably isn't a sport Stanton couldn't master. He tried volleyball during the summer before his sophomore year and was a standout. He played soccer for two years in his youth days. He has so many different pairs of shoes at home that throwing them into a closet isn't an option.

"All the shoes are under the bed," he said.

The one mystery, however, is that despite all his athletic gifts, Stanton could never figure out how to shoot free throws. He made only 42% this season.

"I haven't been very good at free throws ever since I was little," he said. "I didn't have time to focus on that."

And yet, Stanton twice won basketball games for the Knights by making consecutive free throws in the final seconds. Against Capistrano Valley, he had missed 11 of 14 free throws when he made two with 53 seconds left and Notre Dame behind, 54-53.

"I can't explain that," he said. "I just had to knuckle down."

For all Stanton has accomplished, the most intriguing question is what gives him the most joy? Is it catching a touchdown pass, dunking a basketball or hitting a home run?

"I say hitting a home run," he said.

And that explains why his football and basketball days have probably come to an end, unless someone at USC needs a ringer for an intramural event.

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

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