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No program has been hotter than Campolindo over the past three years. Can it continue? By JOE STIGLICH | Contributor   Campolindo High’s three-year...

No program has been hotter than Campolindo over the past three years. Can it continue?

By JOE STIGLICH | Contributor


Campolindo High’s three-year run of baseball dominance could be looked upon as one continuous wave of success.

In truth, each championship season has offered its own unique story.

The 2010 squad broke through with the program’s first North Coast Section title in a decade.

In 2011, the Cougars pulled a surprise by claiming another crown despite graduating half of its starting lineup from the year before.

Last season brought the trifecta, as Campolindo became the first East Bay baseball team in the NCS’s modern era to win three straight section championships.

You can guess what tops this year’s to-do list.

MORE: See our 2013 Bay Area Players to Watch

“The opportunity to four-peat, it’s pretty clear to all of us that it’s never been done before,” said senior second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz, a four-year starter. “It’s kind of like setting an unbreakable mark, which is pretty cool to think about.”

The Cougars have the talent to capture another NCS Division II title, not to mention a truck load of hype to go with it.

Baseball America ranked Campolindo No. 2 in the entire nation in its preseason poll. CalHiSports put them No. 4 in the state, and MaxPreps ranked the Cougars No. 1 in Northern California.

Four starters graduated from last year’s team, including three now playing Division I college ball. But the Cougars return three preseason Collegiate Baseball All-Americans — pitcher/first baseman Trent Shelton and center fielder Brett Stephens (first-teamers), and Tenerowicz (honorable mention).

They continue Campolindo’s impressive baseball lineage, which includes current A’s bench coach Chip Hale, former Cal star Jon Zuber, infielder Paul Faries, and more recently, left-hander Aaron Poreda and right-hander Jeff Stevens, all of whom played in the majors.

“I’m amazed there’s been that many (star players) that have gone through that little town of Moraga,” Amador Valley coach Lou Cesario said.

But the Cougars’ current championship run was born from years of frustration and underachievement.

Coach Max Luckhurst took over the program in 2001, having been an assistant for the team that won NCS the year before under Brian McGladrey.

Campolindo fell to 12-12 in Luckhurst’s first season, and what followed was a string of teams that teased with their talent only to stumble in the postseason. The Cougars never advanced past the NCS semifinals in Luckhurst’s first nine years as head coach.

“It was kind of eating at him,” said San Ramon Valley coach Chris de Clercq, a good friend of Luckhurst’s. “Ten years or so without winning one. … They had so many good teams.”

The Cougars’ fortunes changed with a shift in philosophy in 2009. Luckhurst began targeting the best young players in his program and fast-tracked their development.

“We said let’s just go with the best kids in the program, and not necessarily go by matriculation,” Luckhurst said. “We took some of the better freshmen, the more physical freshmen, and brought them up to varsity.”

In 2009, that group included pitcher James Marvel, who developed into one of the Bay Area’s best all-around players by the time he was a senior last season.

Luckhurst promoted three more freshmen in 2010 – Shelton, Stephens and Tenerowicz — and all gained valuable experience on a team that finally won a section title. Those three now form the senior core of a squad that expects to play for the NCS title on a yearly basis.

In all, 10 freshmen played on Campolindo’s varsity squad from 2009-12.

“He kept a lot of freshmen on varsity, and there were a lot of people who were like, ‘What are you doing?’” de Clercq said. “But it paid off.”

Campolindo, a Division III school by enrollment that petitions up to Division II for baseball, has compiled an 83-24-2 record over the past four years. But a berth in this year’s NCS final is no given.

For one thing, who knows what to make of preseason polls? The fact that Campolindo is ranked second in the nation by Baseball America but just fourth in California by CalHiSports shows their inconsistency.

Campolindo actually lost its season opener, 6-3, to St. Francis-Mountain View, ranked second behind the Cougars in Northern California.

The Cougars’ schedule also includes games against regional powers De La Salle and Serra-San Mateo, not to mention a spot in the always-competitive Lions Tournament in Anaheim. Those nonleague challenges should toughen Campolindo, which has won three consecutive Diablo Foothill Athletic League titles, but the Cougars can’t get caught looking ahead to the postseason.

That’s where the trio of seasoned veteran leaders comes into play.

Shelton, a left-hander committed to Oregon State, pitched in the Area Code Games showcase in August and is Campolindo’s ace.

Tenerowicz, committed to Cal, hit .457 last season with five homers and 37 RBIs in 28 games.

“He had one of the best offensive seasons I’ve ever seen in high school,” Luckhurst said.

Stephens, the UCLA-bound center fielder, was one of the Bay Area’s top quarterbacks before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in October. He says the shoulder is fully healed and is looking to build on a junior season in which he hit .418.

Campolindo has two juniors already committed to Cal in infielder/pitcher Denis Karas and No. 2 starter Matt Ladrech. Junior outfielder Cody Kiriaze is another key returner.

Luckhurst’s challenge will be keeping his team grounded and focused despite all the preseason accolades. But the coach has the ear of his team, according to Stephens.

“I think when you watch us play, you can see a lot of Max in us,” Stephens said. “We’re definitely a competitive group and we never give up. We like to get after it, and I think it’s a reflection of Max’s work with us.”

Luckhurst, who grew up in Brooklyn before moving with his family to Oakland, said he had no aspirations of coaching as a youngster. He graduated from St. Mary’s-Berkeley, and his nondescript college baseball career was cut short by an ankle injury.

He was managing Club Sport in Oakland and playing semipro ball in San Jose when he moved his family to Lafayette in 1998.

“I looked in the Contra Costa Times and I saw Campolindo was hiring assistant coaches,” said Luckhurst, now 43.

Still holding down a job in Oakland while serving as an assistant, he wanted to find an on-campus job at Campolindo. One listing caught his eye — the chance to work with special-education kids.

He’s been a part of the school’s special-education department for the past 13 years and finds it as rewarding as any victory on the diamond.

“It’s kids that either need guidance, or help, or an ear to listen. It’s a variety of things,” Luckhurst said. “My day is different every day I’m there.”

He invites players in to serve as teacher’s assistants. Shelton is one of them.

“It’s a good experience,” Shelton said. “Whenever you think you have it easy with school, there are always other people that need help. It feels good inside to go help someone else.”

If there’s a tight-knit feeling among students, Luckhurst said it also exists on his team, since most players grew up playing in youth leagues together.

Shelton, for example, has been friends since childhood with Luckhurst’s son, Tyler, the Cougars’ senior closer. Shelton recalls leaving elementary school every day with Tyler and rushing over to Campolindo to be around the high school players and soak up baseball knowledge.

There’s also a sense of history among players, and Stephens believes that serves as a driving force for this year’s squad.

“We’re definitely motivated,” he said. “We know if we do what we wanna do and win a fourth straight title, that’ll never be beat. People can tie it, but never beat it.”

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