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Agoura (Calif.) High righthander Robert Stock may be the No. 1 prep pitching prospect in the Draft Class of 2007 according to scouts, but he's not even viewed as the No. 1 pitcher on his own high school team. With a big game on the line, senior righthander Jason Stoffel would get the nod over Stock, according to Mike Magnante, the former big league lefthander who is in his second year as pitching coach at Agoura High.

"Both have God-given ability and throw hard, but they're at different stages in their development," Magnante says. "Jason doesn't throw as hard as Robert, maybe 91-92 mph, but he's more refined at this point. You can work with him on the finer points of pitching because he's more advanced."

No matter who's viewed as the team's ace, the luxury of having two of the best high school arms in the nation on one staff has Agoura head coach Scott Deck predicting big things for his team in 2006. The Chargers, 19-7 in 2005, have been installed at No. 4 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association preseason poll, just behind defending national champion Russell County High of Seale, Ala., which has two high-profile arms of its own.

"To have two consistent, quality pitchers makes my job easier," Deck said. "We know what we are going to get from them each time out. Their presence brings confidence to the rest of the players on the team. The hitters don't have as much pressure to score because the score is usually low when they are on the mound."

Having a pitching coach with 12 years of major league experience also makes Deck's job easier.

"Mike does an amazing job with the pitchers," Deck said. "He is great with small mechanical changes, and the mental side of pitching. I have complete confidence in him."

Magnante, who went 26-32 in a major league career that ended in 2002, had no inkling that he would be entrusted with two arms like Stock and Stoffel when he took a job as a math teacher and assistant baseball coach at Agoura High in 2004.

"I knew nothing about either kid before I got here," Magnante said. "But I heard about Stock pretty quickly."

Stock, whose fastball was clocked last fall at 95 mph, was selected as Baseball America's Youth Player of the Year in 2005 as a 15-year-old.

And yet Stock, for all his accolades and all his talent, has yet to make his mark at Agoura High on the mound. With Stoffel and Jason Novak, who is now at UCLA, handling most of the starting responsibilities for the Chargers last year, Stock was used as the team's closer and worked just 22 innings. He went 5-1, 1.81 with eight saves.

His more pressing assignment was catching Novak and Stoffel, and he hit .409 with eight homers in that role, earning all-league honors. He'll be used as a starting pitcher this year, in addition to serving as his team's primary receiver.

For all Stock's upside on the mound, Magnante thinks the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is a better catcher at this point in his development than he is a pitcher.

"Robert can go either way but he is probably more refined behind the plate," Magnante said. "He's got a cannon back there. But he's worked very hard as a pitcher and his mechanics have gotten a lot better.

"One of the concerns we've had with him pitching more this year is we've had to search for a catcher that can catch him. He's got great stuff, but he's a lot easier to catch now because his command is much better."

As a pitching coach, Magnante preaches throwing quality strikes, and his instruction has made a big difference in Stoffel's development.

The 6-foot-3 righthander worked only one inning at Agoura as a sophomore, but under Magnante's tutelage last year he developed into the pitcher of the year in Ventura County, going 8-2, 2.14. Scouts say Stoffel's command is so advanced that it is the equal of any premium high school pitcher in the country. He has the ability to be drafted in the first two rounds in June providing he can be lured away from a scholarship offer to Arizona.

While Magnante favors using Stoffel with a big game on the line this season, Deck isn't so sure.

"That is too difficult to call," Deck said. "Both have tremendous confidence and bring a presence to the mound. But being that Jason is a senior and has paid his dues, I might lean towards him, with Robert entering at any point.

"However, Robert has thrown in so many big games throughout his career, it would be hard not to start him. But I guess we'll cross that bridge if we get there."

ARDUOUS ROAD

It's a safe presumption that if Russell County High repeats as BA's No. 1 team, the honor will have been well earned.

It seems like just yesterday that the Rasmus clan-Tony, the country's most quotable coach with his four sons in tow-was sopping up headlines like biscuits 'n' gravy. Last year, the Warriors were ranked No. 4 in the preseason but took over the top spot in April and never looked back, completing the 2005 season with a 38-1 record and an Alabama Class 5-A title.

It was a fitting ending. Tony bade farewell to his oldest son Colby, a senior center fielder on last year's team who was named first-team All-America and was drafted in the first round by the Cardinals. The club will miss Colby's offense-he batted .484-24-66-as well as his arm-he won three games and saved three others with 30 strikeouts in 17 innings, most of which came late in the few close games Russell County played.

But the Rasmus boys just keep coming. Now Cory is a senior, Case and Cyle are sophomores and all should play integral roles in the Warrior's title defense. Cory's fastball has been clocked as high as 97 mph and, along with senior lefthander Kasey Kiker, a second-team Preseason All-American, Russell County returns its top two pitchers.

"I actually believe our pitching staff will be better," said Tony, whose team got better by virtue of its previous success and growing reputation as a regional and national power.

Six-foot-4 junior righty Danny Danielson and senior righthander David Williamson transferred to Russell County before this season. Williamson won't be able to pitch because of a rotator cuff injury, but Danielson falls into the fold nicely, as one of a handful of hurlers who can at least bump 90 mph--if he's cleared to play.

Less than a week before the season, five players who transferred to Russell County were ruled ineligible while the school's administration made sure they had followed protocol during their transfers.

The void created when Colby graduated was plugged with Adam Coe, an infielder who transferred from nearby Columbus (Ga.) High.

"Our team will be a better hitting club one through nine (and) will pitch better, but we will miss Colby's defensive presence along with his amazing ability to help every player around play at a higher level," Tony said. "The only thing that could sidetrack this club is that lack of leadership."

Intangibles notwithstanding, Russell County High's experience, pitching depth and infusion of talent make it the preseason top team in the BA/NHSBCA Top 50. In the 12-year history of the poll, only Chatsworth (Calif.) High has finished No. 1 in back-to-back seasons, turning the trick in 2003 and 2004.

The Warriors will be hard-pressed to repeat the feat. Along with many of Alabama's best teams-including Millbrook's Stanhope Elmore, the only team to beat Russell County in 2005-Tony has laid out a demanding schedule.

"You know, Kasey and Cory don't lack for an ego, and they said, 'we've better than a lot of (teams in the country),' " Tony said. "So I said all right, and started lining them up.

"It's going to be tough on us but it's going to be fun to play that schedule."

The gauntlet began with No. 28 Mosley High (Lynn Haven, Fla.), the top team from Florida's panhandle and home of senior outfielder Cody Johnson, one of the country's best power hitters. Mosley defeated a Russell County and its emaciated roster, 7-6.

No. 15 Lassiter High (Marietta, Ga.) coach Mickey McMurtry rang Tony before the season and set up a showdown with Russell County in early March. A week later the Warriors travel east to participate in the La Grange Invitational where Georgia powers Cartersville High, La Grange High, Columbus High and Parkview High (Lilburn, Ga.), as well as Nova High (Davie, Fla.) will be among the teams gunning for Kasey, Cory and company.

Arguably Russell County's toughest test will come at home April 11, when Miami's No. 6 Florida Christian comes calling.

AROUND THE NATION

• Agoura's bid to make an impact nationally may depend on its ability to beat two teams from its own backyard, Chatsworth High and El Camino Real High, both of which went 29-4 in 2005. Chatsworth returns senior RHP Josh Ravin along with two promising juniors, 3B Matt Dominguez and SS Mike Moustakas. El Camino Real added highly-regarded senior OF Gabe Cohen, a transfer from Harvard-Westlake High, to a pitching-rich team that features senior OF/LHP Shaun Kort (.456-11-41; 10-1, 1.18).

• Northern California's pecking order wasn't easily deciphered as the season approached. San Jose's Bellarmine Prep was NorCal's highest-ranked club in the preseason poll at No. 16, although Carmichael's Jesuit High, No. 20 De La Salle (Concord) and Deer Valley (Antioch) all boast talented rosters. Jesuit High took a hit when its top returning catcher was lost for the season after Tommy John surgery. The senior combo of 1B/OF Lars Anderson and LHP Andy Oros provides Jesuit with a power bat to anchor the lineup and a front-line starter, but holes behind the plate and up the middle-Jesuit is bereft of a true shortstop, as well-lend uncertainty in the team's outlook. "Our league is good again, and we're playing in Fresno the week before Easter and the National Classic (in Orange County) the week after," Jesuit head coach Joe Potulny said. "We'll find out at some point how good we are. And if we do OK, at some point later in the year, we might (contend for national ranking)."

• Further north in Napa, Justin-Siena High, which went 27-0 and won its third straight California Interscholastic Federation North Coast Section Division-VI title last year, carried a 40-game winning streak into this season. It was the state's longest active streak and the second longest in California history behind Chatsworth High's 54-game streak, which ended last season.

• Jackson High of Mill Creek, Wash., makes its first splash in the national rankings at No. 10 in the BA/NHSBCA preseason poll. But winning national championships are nothing new to several Jackson players. The team's three top players, junior C/RHP Kawika Emsley-Pai, senior RHP Cam Nobles and senior OF Travis Snider, were all key players for the Seattle Stars, which won consecutive Continental Amateur Baseball Association 15-year-old titles in 2003 and 2004.

• Owasso High, winners of five Oklahoma Class 6-A titles from 1998-2004, will attempt to get back on track after losing in the championship game of the 2005 state playoffs to Union High of Tulsa. The Rams return senior LHP Chris Armstrong, who is 29-3 with 349 strikeouts in his high school career, along with senior C Joe Patterson (.363-6-36) and senior SS Pete Kozma (.405-8-31). "We are coming off a great season, but have several holes to fill," coach Larry Turner said of his Rams, ranked again as Oklahoma's top team in the BA/NHSBCA preseason poll at No. 23.

• No. 37 Cypress Falls (Texas) High SS Joey Kenworthy, a senior who committed to Texas Tech, broke his left leg during preseason practice and is not expected to return to the lineup until the postseason, at the earliest.

• Competition in New York City's Division-A Public School Athletic League should be fierce this season. Perennial powers Tottenville High, No. 39 James Monroe High and George Washington High figure to be in the mix, as usual, but a relative newcomer on the block is Brooklyn's Grand Street Campus High. Grand Street made the move up from Division-B in 1999 and last year lost to Tottenville, the eventual champion, in the semifinals of the 32-team PSAL postseason tournament. Grand Street RHP Dellin Betances, the state's top prospect and a first-team preseason All-American, overthrew first base on a bunt, allowing two runs to score in the 2-1 final. Betances, whose fastball has been clocked in the mid-90s, is back for his senior season, and finding someone to catch him-behind the plate-remains somewhat of a dilemma. Grand Street coach Melvin Martinez planned to use senior C Hendy Tavarez and junior Louis Hiraldo behind the plate but said, particularly early in the season, his catcher's hand was too sore after receiving for Betances to play again for up to a week. "We get started March 11 and sometimes it's still in the 30s and your hand is frozen," Martinez said. "You get back there when (Betances) is pitching and it hurts. We've had (the catcher) wrapped, padded . . . everything imaginable."