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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Multi-sport athletes can double their fun in football playoffs

Players like Bishop Amat's Rio Ruiz are putting baseball on hold while trying to lead their football teams to championships.

November 27, 2009|Eric Sondheimer
  • Bishop Amat's Rio Ruiz picks up yards against Mater Dei and Matthew Billeci in the first round of the Pac-5 Division playoffs last week.
Bishop Amat's Rio Ruiz picks up yards against Mater Dei and Matthew… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

At 15, Rio Ruiz has been told he could be a first-round draft choice in baseball. He's a sophomore third baseman at La Puente Bishop Amat who committed to USC last year as a freshman.

And yet, on Thanksgiving, he was in his football practice gear preparing for tonight's Southern Section Pac-5 quarterfinal playoff game against Lakewood and not regretting anything about his decision to keep playing multiple sports.

"I've been playing football since I was 6," he said. "I love the emotion it provides, all the fans in the stands. I'm going to keep playing."

Good for him and all the other baseball players making huge contributions on football teams in the playoffs. This is the time for teenagers to enjoy themselves before the pressures of trying to earn a living take center stage, so why shouldn't they have some fun playing another sport if that's what they want to do?

Daniel Poncedeleon of La Mirada has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in Southern California this season, passing for 2,150 yards and 19 touchdowns with only three interceptions for the 10-1 Matadores.

But he has a fastball clocked in the 90s, a baseball scholarship to Arizona and gets all A's in his classes. There are lots of scouts who'd love to see him pitch this winter, but that's not going to happen until after football season.

"I love the sport, and I'm not going to back out on my teammates to get ready for the next sport," he said. "Right after football, I'll go straight into baseball."

Ruiz, Poncedeleon and other top baseball players involved in football are going against a trend in which focusing year-round on a single sport has become the common decision.

Of course, multiple-sport athletes usually come from schools where coaches cooperate in creating environments that encourage athletes to play more than one sport, whether it be helping with scheduling or providing positive feedback.

At West Hills Chaminade, Brando Tessar is the football team's most gifted athlete, a receiver with speed and big-play skills. But he's also headed to Oregon on a baseball scholarship as a pitcher and hitter.

"I'm not ready to give up the pads," Tessar said. "Since I was 10, I've never had an off season where I could work on just one sport."

And that's the dilemma for lots of two-sport athletes. They wonder how good they could be if they focused on a single sport.

Former Sherman Oaks Notre Dame three-sport standout Mike Stanton never had time to practice baseball year round because he was such a good football and basketball player. Last year, he hit 39 home runs in the minor leagues for the Florida Marlins to become the team's No. 1 pro prospect. Stanton was unwilling to give up playing multiple sports in high school, and everything has worked out fine.

There's also the threat of injury in football. Someone who could be a high draft choice might not want to take the risk of playing football with a lucrative signing bonus at stake.

All these issues and more go through the minds of the elite two-sport athlete.

"I would never not play high school football," Tessar said. "It's one of the better experiences. You build some good friendships when you play football. It's hard to let them down. There's no other sport like it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All people ever talk about is how much they regret [not playing football], and I never wanted it to be me."

At La Mirada, Poncedeleon will be giving up basketball this season to prepare for baseball. That's his only compromise. It's going to be hard enough to never play football again when the playoffs are over.

"I didn't decide it was my best sport," he said of baseball. "I got a good scholarship I couldn't pass up."

Poncedeleon has always dreamed of getting to play football on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his teams always lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Finally, there he was on Thanksgiving, and not a baseball in sight. He was throwing footballs preparing for his team's Southern Division quarterfinal playoff game against Garden Grove Santiago.

"I've always wanted to do it," he said.

Whether they become major leaguers or not, Poncedeleon and the others are having the time of their lives playing in the football playoffs before sellout crowds, making friends and creating memories that will last long after their baseball days are over.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATsondheimer

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