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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Of his shoulder injury, Tyler Swank, above, said: "I'm pushing through it. … It means too much to quit."

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Senior shortstop Tyler Swank, playing despite a painful torn labrum, epitomizes the will to win in Del Campo's players.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Paul Martinez is in his first year at Del Campo but has coached teams to titles at Mira Loma, San Juan, El Camino and Rosemont.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Senior utility player Derek Rodigo leads Del Campo with a .475 batting average. Jared Biggs is hitting .463, Mike Hatfield .410 and Mike Ramirez .357.

Del Campo baseball team is streaking

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 5:27 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 6:55 am

Two events have defined Del Campo's baseball season.

The first came last month in Fresno, where the Cougars went 3-1 in a tournament and emerged as a tighter unit amid rallies, postgame pizza and howls of laughter.

The second occurred last week amid a scene of chaos and sorrow. Ron Swank didn't see his grandson Tyler Swank hammer the go-ahead, sixth-inning grand slam against Casa Roble because he was administering CPR to Daniel Estrella, another grandfather watching his grandson play on Casa Roble's junior varsity team. Estrella had collapsed because of cardiac arrest. By the time young Swank crossed the plate, all eyes looked toward the hill just above the Del Campo dugout where real life had transcended sport.

"Right away, kids were scanning the stands - who's missing, where's my uncle, what's going on? - and that's hard," recalled Casa Roble coach Ed Tupper.

Despite the efforts of Ron Swank and responding paramedics, Estrella passed away.

Del Campo coach Paul Martinez and Tupper gathered their teams. The game was suspended and resumed days later.

"We talked about it, what it all means," said Martinez, a veteran area coach in his first season with the Cougars. "We told our guys that there are more important things than baseball. They understand."

Said Derek Rodigo, Del Campo's leading hitter: "It's a scary thing to witness, to see a man losing his life. We know this is just a game."

With added focus, Del Campo continues to surge. The Bee's No. 8 team, the Cougars (16-5) have the area's longest current winning streak of 10 games and loom as a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I postseason favorite.

Winning isn't new to the Fair Oaks school. Baseball has been big there since the 1960s, when Dusty Baker ran the bases. Harry Kawahata coached championship teams in the 1980s and '90s, and early last decade the Cougars were The Bee's top-ranked team.

Rodigo is a solid student-athlete holding a 4.1 grade-point average and headed to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, where he'll play baseball. The utility player leads the team with a .475 batting average. Jared Biggs is hitting .463, Mike Hatfield .410 and Mike Ramirez .357. Sam Long anchors the pitching staff with a 3-0 record and 0.39 ERA.

Tyler Swank is an example of perseverance. The senior shortstop tore his labrum - his shoulder - eight weeks ago but continues to play. It hurts to glove grounders, and he winces with every swing, including the grand slam. He'll have surgery the day after the season ends.

"I'm pushing through it, and I ice it six times a day," Swank said. "It means too much to quit."

What's more, Swank thinks of the man who came to watch his grandson and lost his life, and his own grandfather who lives for grand-slam moments.

"He loves to watch me play," Swank said of Ron Swank, a medic during his Army tour in Vietnam. "He'd do anything for me. He'd do anything for anyone."

Martinez has coached area teams since 1991. This is the closest he has been to home. He is a product of Del Campo Little League and was in the now-closed La Sierra High School's final graduating class 30 years ago.

Martinez coached championship teams at Mira Loma, San Juan, El Camino and Rosemont. He lives a relay throw from Del Campo, La Sierra's chief rival back in the day.

"It's been great," Martinez said. "A lot of my high school classmates have kids coming through Del Campo now. This was absolutely my rival in high school. I can tell you all about some of the great players here - Rick Schu, Clyde Keller, Dave Zancanaro. I can reel off Del Campo history."

Martinez surrounded himself with a coaching staff of familiar faces.

Doug Herrenschmidt played Del Campo Little League with Martinez in the 1970s and says "in my 40 years in baseball, Paul's the best I've ever seen do this."

Darrick Blatnick was coached by Martinez in Del Campo Little League in the 1980s, played for him at Mira Loma and coached with him at various stops. Dan Smith was the ace for Del Campo in 2000, and Kevin Higgins is the winningest coach in American River College history.

"I was driving in Las Vegas when Paul called, begged me, says, 'Come on, man. One more time!' " Blatnick said. "He's like family. Can't say no to that."

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