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It's not just an act

ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Pitcher Cody Buckel of Simi Valley Royal is as serious about baseball as he is about performing and singing in a musical.

February 15, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Does this script sound familiar? Teenage jock meets girl who's into drama and singing. She convinces him to try out for the lead role in a high school play. He wins the part, dividing his sports friends.

"I'm definitely living the life of 'High School Musical,' " Simi Valley Royal pitcher Cody Buckel said.

With a 90-mph fastball, a 3.9 grade-point average and a scholarship waiting for him at Pepperdine, Buckel's future couldn't be more certain. Then he decided to try out for the role of Troy in the school production of "High School Musical." And he got it.

"I was a little surprised and very happy," he said.

His baseball coach, Dan Maye, didn't realize Buckel had an interest in acting.

"I've never had to deal with a baseball player going to drama class every day," Maye said. "I had to talk to the drama teacher. If he's singing or rehearsing, that's fine, but if he's sitting around, I need him on the field."

Welcome to the world of sharing a 16-year-old junior with athletic and artistic talent. Buckel will perform in seven shows that begin April 23, and he has worked out his schedule so that he won't miss any baseball games.

Of course, he might not have much time to sleep either.

With a powerful right arm, the 6-foot-1 Buckel is no ordinary pitcher.

He was a key contributor for the U.S. under-16 national team that won the gold medal in September at the Youth Pan American Championships in Veracruz, Mexico. Buckel had a 2-0 record with 11 strikeouts in eight innings during the eight-game tournament.

His fastball has touched 93 mph.

"If he were a senior, he'd be getting drafted in the first two rounds," Maye said.

Granada Hills Kennedy Coach Manny Alvarado said, "He was the best pitcher we saw all winter."

This month, Buckel started time-consuming preparation for "High School Musical," spending hours practicing his acting, dancing and singing routines.

If there were a conflict, Buckel said he would choose baseball, but he refuses to apologize for deciding he wants to try both for now.

"This is about enjoying the years of high school," he said. "They say it's the best years of your life."

He participated in drama classes in junior high, then lost interest. Last year, he got back into it, at the urging of his girlfriend, Rachel Eisner, president of the drama club. He had a small role in the winter play, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

"I got away from it because of baseball," he said. "I started missing it and got involved."

Now he's juggling responsibilities and commitments, with rehearsals taking him into the early-evening hours after baseball practice has ended.

His drama teacher, Joy Enright, is thrilled with what she has seen.

"When he auditioned for me, he was very sincere, realistic and believable," she said. "Then I heard him sing, and I was blown away because who knew he could sing like that?"

During a rehearsal, he seemed to sound good enough to perform an audition for "American Idol."

The big question is whether he's more nervous on the mound or on stage.

"Probably on stage a little bit more because I've been doing baseball my entire life, so the nerves have gone away," he said.

And then there's that little challenge of singing and dancing at the same time.

"You're getting winded from dancing and you have to stay in the right key, and that's tough," he said.

Not that Buckel is going to be bothered by any catcalls from the audience.

During his trip to Mexico last fall, fans rooting for Venezuela decided to focus their ire on Buckel.

"They would not stop yelling at me when I was on the mound," he said. "Some of them were drunk. The cops escorted them out."

Next up Frank McCourt. Or perhaps Simon Cowell.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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