Frank Cruz, a Santa Monica High graduate who has established himself as one of college baseball’s best coaches, took over a sixth place team at Loyola Marymount University nine years ago.
The team won the West Coast Conference championship the next three years. As a result, Cruz has been named the conference’s Coach of the Year three times and was manager of Team USA when it won the gold medal at the World University Games in Taiwan.
Cruz, who also attended Santa Monica College and was baseball coach at University High, had another outstanding team at Loyola this season. The Lions finished strong by winning 14 of their last 16 regular season games and contested rival Pepperdine in a best-of-three playoff series at Loyola’s Page Stadium. Loyola won the first game but lost the next two.
It was the fourth time the teams had met in the WCC baseball finals with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line. Reaching this level of competition is an enormous achievement, considering where the program was when Cruz arrived.
Five players from the Loyola team were chosen in the baseball draft, including outfielder James Cooper, who went to LMU after leading the 2001 Santa Monica High football team to a CIF championship as a quarterback. Cooper, a ninth round choice of the Yankees, has signed a professional contract.
Loyola junior pitcher Stephen Kahn was chosen in the fifth round by the Seattle Mariners. Cincinnati picked LMU relief pitcher Jeff Stevens in the sixth round. LMU all-conference outfielder Joe Frazee went to Philadelphia in the 25th round and infielder Kyle Mura was the 49th round selection of the Chicago Cubs.
Stevens and Frazee have also signed professional contracts.
Another LMU player, pitcher Kyle Huddy, wasn’t drafted but has signed a contract with Cincinnati.
Kahn is a 6-foot-3, 220 pound righthander. Frazee was all-conference four consecutive years, the only LMU player ever to achieve that honor. Stevens was a two-year all-conference relief pitcher.
The most recent Lions who have turned pro have ambitions to reach the major leagues, something former LMU all-conference pitcher C.J. Wilson has accomplished. Wilson, who is with the Texas Rangers, struck out Marlins all-star first baseman Carlos Delgado in June after being called up from the minors. He later started against the Washington Nationals and pitched in a game against the Dodgers.
In talking about Wilson, Rangers manager Buck Showalter has used the word “impresssive.’’
As baseball has become a more prominent sport at Loyola, Cruz has overseen the construction of Pride Park, the entrance to Page Stadium.
It has the design of a baseball diamond. Concrete benches surround various tributes to past LMU players and championship teams and NCAA Tournament appearances.
Since Loyola doesn’t field a football team and has struggled in men’s basketball in recent years, the baseball success has done much to keep the school’s name prominent on sports pages.
Ever on the alert in search of talent, Cruz attended some Samohi games this season. He was taking notes on some impressive Viking underclassmen and undoubtedly will follow their progress next season. He was also evaluating Samohi all-CIF catcher Cody Decker at a time when Decker hadn’t made his collegiate choice. Decker since signed a letter of intent to attend UCLA.
There will be plenty of talent at Loyola too as Cruz has built a baseball program with an excellent reputation.Free-lance writer Ron Smith contributed to this article.