EDITOR'S ROAD TRIP

In astrology, the planets occasionally align themselves in a gravitational pattern that brings forth a slew of doomsday predictions. In my world, the schedule of championship games once in a while lines up perfectly to bring forth a memorable day of watching some of the best high school baseball and softball players in the country.

That's what happened last Saturday in Southern California and because of favorable traffic conditions, a dependable car that admittedly was driven above the speed limit a few times and no extra innings (except at the end when it didn't matter), I was able to cover three championship baseball/softball games at three different sites.

The day began with a 10 a.m. baseball matchup at Edison International Field in Anaheim between La Quinta of Westminster and Pacifica of Garden Grove in the CIF Southern Section Div. IV final. Next up was a 1 p.m. softball game at Barber Park in Irvine between Pacifica and La Mirada in the CIF Southern Section Div. III final. That led to a 7 p.m. baseball game at Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego between La Costa Canyon of Carlsbad and Rancho Bernardo of San Diego in the CIF San Diego Section Div. I final.

I had warmed up for the Saturday marathon by watching most of the running events and a few of the field events the night before at the trials for the CIF state track meet. It also was great getting caught up with many colleagues and friends. Congratulations to Rick Smith on his retirement as the director of media relations for the St. Louis Rams and to Mitch Stephens for recently getting a full-time gig with the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was strange, in a way, parking the car and walking through the mostly empty lot at Edison International Field. Another large building, The Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, loomed in the distance and it was difficult not thinking about all the attention that would be centered there later in the day when the Mighty Ducks took on the New Jersey Devils in Game Six of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

A year ago, I went to the same CIF Southern Section title game as Bishop Amat of La Puente clipped La Quinta to wrap up the No. 1 ranking in the state. La Quinta had its chances in that game, but never got the key hit. Midway through this year's game, it was happening again. Fortunately for the Aztecs, Ian Kennedy was even more dominating on the hill and the score was 0-0 heading into the fifth inning.

La Quinta finally broke through in the bottom of the fifth on a bases-loaded double by Cole Garner that scored two runs. That set the stage for the top of the sixth and the best execution of a trick play I've ever seen.

Pacifica's Travis Bernard tripled to lead off the inning and with one out scored on a throwing error that also enabled Cody Moore to safely reach first base. A walk to David Heller made it runners at first and second with one out. Pacifica coach Andy Lewis then inserted Robert Marinez as a pinch runner. A few moments later, Kennedy whirled around toward second base on an apparent pickoff play. La Quinta's two middle infielders, Blake Crosby and Ryan Johnson, reacted as if the throw was high, both leaping into the air. Then they spun on their heels and ran toward the outfield. Marinez bought it hook-line-and-sinker. He took off running toward third base. It's just that Kennedy never threw the ball in the first place. He was then able to pick off Marinez easily for the second out, effectively quelling Pacifica's rally.

The top of the seventh wasn't so dramatic, although Brad Wilson of Pacifica did single with two outs. He was thrown out at second on a steal attempt by La Quinta's Aaron Randall to end the game.

While La Quinta's players celebrated, the only grouchy person on the field was myself. The digital camera I use wouldn't work, acting as if the batteries were dead. I didn't think the rechargable batteries needed more juice, but I guess they did. By now, I was starting to look at the clock because I needed to get down to Irvine for the softball game. I talked to La Quinta coach Dave Demarest for a few moments and went back up to the press box to collect my bag. Just after thanking CIFSS media relations director Thom Simmons, I noticed the camera was working again. If I could get one or two shots of La Quinta's Ian Stewart, then I'd be happy. I found Stewart actually posing for some photos with family and friends in the dark walkways of the stadium. I snapped two shots before the camera died again. Unfortunately, both shots are too dark for me to use on our site or in our Student Sports Magazine.

As I headed out toward the I-5 freeway, the only directions I had to get to Barber Park was that it was near the Irvine Civic Center. I drove to the third Irvine exit I saw, spotted a gas station and was able to ask an attendant for more precise directions. Three blocks from the gas station, I noticed a Radio Shack store in a shopping center. I was running out of time to make the first pitch for Pacifica-La Mirada, but I thought it was more important to have a working camera than seeing every pitch of all the games I was planning to see. I bought brand new batteries, hoping that it would do the trick, and the camera now worked perfectly. I eventually found Barber Park and shut the car door hurriedly, thinking I probably had missed the first inning. But as I approached the gate, I was happy to hear the announcer shout, "Let's play softball!" I didn't see the entire game, but I did at least hear what happened as the first batter for La Mirada reached on an error. I was in place, watching the game, two batters later.

I know many Pacifica fans did the same double-header as I did and they probably were feeling especially snake-bit as their favored softball team fell behind first by 1-0 and eventually by 3-0. La Mirada coach Rich Trujillo instructed his players to chop at the offerings of Pacifica sophomore Brittany Weil and it seemed like every bouncing ball or soft bunt was going in his team's direction.

In the second inning, senior catcher Jamie Waldecker of Pacifica was hustling down the first base line, trying to beat out a grounder. She caught the edge of the base with her left foot and it was one of those ankle twists that was easy to see. Waldecker didn't get up for several minutes and after another delay of a few more minutes she decided to stay in the game.

In the top of the fourth, Waldecker hopped up on her bad ankle, pounced on a bunt attempt and threw out the runner at first. She limped noticeably after the play. But that turned out to be just the beginning of her expression of determination.

In the bottom of the sixth, after Jodi Legaspi's lead-off double, Waldecker hit a high-bouncing grounder. She gutted it out and somehow found the speed on that sore ankle to beat out the throw to first and set the stage for a big inning. Pacifica coach Rob Weil said that play was the turning point of the game and I would agree. Waldecker's effort on that ankle also is one of the best examples of performing in the clutch despite pain that I've ever seen by a high school athlete. It reminded me of watching Jason Kidd dive for loose balls and defend like a demon in the 1991 CIF state basketball finals despite hip and ankle injuries. After that game, Jason could barely walk, but minutes earlier he was his usual whirling dervish self.

Pacifica's huge inning was helped by two La Mirada errors. It really broke open on a single by Amy Mayrhofer (one RBI), a single by Crystal Vieyra, a double by Legaspi (two RBI) and a single by Ashlyn Watson (two RBI). By the time it was over, La Mirada's 3-0 lead had turned into a 9-3 deficit. This is the stuff State Teams of the Year are made of, I thought as I put away my phone numbers to the Salinas newspaper. Had La Mirada won, I was planning to phone in the score so that fans of state No. 2 Notre Dame of Salinas would know what happened.

With a recharged camera working well, I completed my postgame interviews with Pacifica's players and the two coaches, then walked back to my car in good shape to make it down to San Diego for the 7 p.m. baseball game I was planning to attend in a few hours. Traffic on the 1-5 heading from south Orange County to San Diego County can be dicey, but this time it wasn't so I was on pace to get to Tony Gwynn Stadium with more than an hour to spare.

I was hoping this would happen. I did not want to hurry down to the game driving like a maniac and with no place to stay that night. I also didn't want to have to drive back all the way back to Northern California on Sunday from all the way down in San Diego. I decided to look for a room in northern San Diego County and wound up at the same Motel 6 where I stayed last summer with my wife and son when we went to Legoland. I had enough time to relax for a few minutes, call home and even watched a story on the local news about the closing of Lincoln High (it will re-open again in 2006).

The weather on this trip was never typical Southern California. It was more like typical San Francisco in the summer, with fog and drizzle. It was getting more and more wet as I got closer to Tony Gwynn Stadium. The thought of a rain-out ruining my plans never crossed my mind. I didn't think it was likely, but I felt sorry for the kids who would have to play in these somewhat slick conditions.

Upon arrival at the stadium, I was pleased to see that the Division II final between El Capitan and Patrick Henry had not yet ended and was relieved when section commissioner Dennis Ackerman let me into the gate after at first not recognizing me. The late finish to the Division II game gave me the chance to get some pictures of El Capitan players as well as coach Steve Vickery. I also was able to get to know Poway News-Chieftain sports editor Kevin Gemmell, who it turns out went to Mitty High of San Jose at the same time as volleyball standout Kerri Walsh. He was proud to point out that his Mitty football team was part of the De La Salle national record winning streak. I pointed at the La Costa Canyon players (some of whom were on last fall's football team that also lost to De La Salle) and commented, "So are they."

There was no formal press box at Tony Gwynn Stadium so I wound up with Kevin amidst several coaches and administrators who shall remain nameless because some of their comments were very funny and could be taken the wrong way. I got a laugh when I quipped that I was finally going to turn off the tape recorder that was in my bag. Don't worry, fellas, it was all off the record.

I will say that most in the press box thought Rancho Bernardo -- which had won three Division I section titles in 1999, 2000 and 2001 before losing last year in the final to Rancho Buena Vista -- was going to win. I just figured it was going to be one of those back-and-forth games that you often get when two outstanding teams hook up in the playoffs.

It was one of those back-and-forth games, but it wasn't pretty. Two walks in the top of the first helped the Broncos score a run. La Costa Canyon came back with a run in the bottom of the first with the help of an error, a wild pitch and a misplayed fly ball that wasn't called an error because the Rancho Bernardo outfielder lost the ball in the murky darkness.

La Costa Canyon forged a 3-1 lead going into the top of the sixth. The second run came in when Joey Burke singled in Nick Burke. A suicide squeeze bunt by Johnny Zepeda scored Andrew Nacario for the third.

That's when Rancho Bernardo made its move. David Morehead's double with one out scored one run and set the stage for two more. The tying run came across on a wild pitch and the go-ahead run scored when a balk was called on La Costa Canyon pitcher Doug Konoske.

The lead for the Broncos was short-lived. La Costa Canyon answered with a single run in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score, 4-4. It was scored by Peter Bethea on a wild pitch.

On a day and night like I was having, extra innings was only natural. For a few seconds, though, it looked like the Mavericks were going to win it in the bottom of the seventh. Nick Burke lined a single to center with Scott Clement at second base. But Burke hit the ball so hard and it was sent back so quickly by the Rancho Bernardo outfield, Clement realized as he was about halfway to home that he would be out by a mile. He stopped in mid-stride, engaged in a brief rundown with the Rancho Bernardo catcher and third baseman and was finally tagged out at home to end the inning.

Although it was getting late (10:30) and it was getting colder and wetter by the minute, the crowd at the stadium was intense and knew about everything that was on the line. In fact, despite the poor weather, there were more than 3,200 on hand. Some in the press box felt it was the biggest crowd they'd seen for a San Diego Secton final.

Rancho Bernardo proceeded to load the bases in the top of the eighth. Sophomore Brian Wilson was the batter with two outs and made good contact on a drive to deep left field. But it was quickly evident that Michael Scharbarth had the ball in his sights and squeezed the final out of the inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Joey Burke walked with one out and Chris Fuller then singled to left. Scharbarth was the next batter and hit a high chopper to third. The throw to first was high and wild. As Rancho Bernardo players chased the ball, Burke flew around third and came all the way home to score the winning run, 5-4.

Since I had struck up a conversation with a security guard at the left field gate, he let me onto the diamond almost as soon as Burke scored. I was able to snap a ton of celebration photos. After a few minutes, I introduced myself to La Costa Canyon coach Justin Machado, who I'd never met before. "So you're Mark Tennis?" he asked. "It's great you're here."

In the midst of the celebrating, Machado asked the players to settle down and that I had an announcement for them. They looked at me with wide-eyed anticipation. They obviously knew all about being No. 1 in the state in our rankings and No. 1 in the nation by the Student Sports FAB 50. I told them that next week they would be named State Team of the Year and that there was a chance they could be the consensus national team of the year if Chatsworth lost in the L.A. City Section final and if Round Rock of Texas lost in the Texas state final. I added that it was common for a school to claim a national championship if one of the three rankings picked them No. 1, so they would be able to do it no matter what else happened to the other two teams.

I later found out that Round Rock had indeed lost in the Texas Class 5A state final, but Chatsworth did not lose three days later in its last game. I don't want to take anything away from that team and I am actually glad that it gets to claim being the mythical national champions for this year, too. My uncle and I still feel we have strong reasons for making it La Costa Canyon No. 1 and Chatsworth No. 2 in our rankings. You should know we debated that topic about six weeks ago and way back then knew there was a possibility this situation at the end of the season might occur.

I wish I could have driven back up I-5 toward the Motel 6 in Carlsbad recalling all the plays I had seen during the long day and night. But I still had work to do. I stopped at a Denny's near the Del Mar race track, got out my notebook, and dictated a story to Sheldon Shealer, who was going to post a story on the La Costa Canyon victory on the Student Sports and Cal-Hi Sports web sites. Sheldon lives in Maryland and often works all night to mirror his wife's work schedule (she is a nurse). He had the stories posted by 12:30 a.m. our time, 3:30 a.m. his time. Finally, at close to 1 a.m., I pulled the sheets over me and fell asleep.

The next day began with a bit of trepidation. I had missed the finals of the state track meet for the first time in many years in favor of my baseball/softball extravaganza and I was hoping I hadn't missed anything too amazing. Allyson Felix did win the 100 and the 200, but she set no all-time national records. The Helix boys (which got top billing in the Union-Tribune) and Long Beach Poly girls won the team titles. I know I saw the Poly girls at their best, though, when they were at the Penn Relays in April.

It was going to be a long drive home, and I made it back to Stockton on just two stops. Don't tell my wife, but I'm already thinking about next December when the San Diego football championships will be held on the Monday following a weekend of L.A. City and Southern Section finals. Could the schedule of top games align themselves perfectly once again?


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