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BRIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
El Modena senior Brett Conine draws comparisons to former Vanguard letter winner Freddie Freeman, a sixth-year first baseman for the Atlanta Braves. El Modena coach Jash Kliner said of the two: "Brett is more of a grinder. Freddie was more of a natural."

El Modena's Conine turning heads with his play

STAFF WRITER

It’s a recent Monday afternoon, and El Modena baseball coach Josh Kliner is overseeing and participating in an intra-squad scrimmage.

The Vanguards haven’t played a game since their Crestview League finale the Thursday prior, and Kliner wants his troupe ready for its playoff opener in three days.

Brett Conine, one of the best two-way players in Orange County, steps to the plate with a runner on third base and two outs.

While digging into the batter’s box, he takes one, two, three half swings before cocking his bat over his right shoulder.

“If there’s a secret to hitting, no one’s told me yet,” he would later joke.

Conine, an imposing 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior, takes a fastball outside, then a breaking ball in the dirt.

Two balls, no strikes.

“Whenever we’ve needed a big hit, he’s delivered,” Kliner said earlier in the afternoon.

Conine swings at and misses the third offering. The fourth tails outside.

Three balls, one strike.

Conine lays off an inside strike, and then takes ball four in the dirt. A six-pitch walk. He drops his bat and jogs to first base.

“We’ve worked our butts off to get this far,” Conine said after practice. “We’re keeping it the same. We’re not changing anything just because we made the playoffs. Competitively, there’s no difference between a practice like this and a game.”

It is here, in seclusion, with no fans or college scouts in the bleachers, where Conine shows his true value.

Cal State Fullerton saw it this past summer, and soon everyone else will, too.

“How hard he works day in and day out,” Kliner said, “it’s great for coaches. And kids are seeing what they need to do to get where he’s at. They’re not just seeing the end result.

“If I had a son, I’d hope he’d be just like him.”

***

As a toddler, Conine always stood taller than his peers, making him the prototypical do-everything Little Leaguer.

He pitched, caught and played third base growing up, and as big as he was, he didn’t remain in his age group very long. At 12, Conine joined his maiden travel team, the So Cal Hogs, where he played for a friend’s father and lost summers playing baseball locally with friends he still calls close.

“We would always compete,” said Paul Gomez, El Modena’s senior shortstop and a longtime teammate of Conine’s. “It was great. We always had, and still have, a ton of respect for each other. We feed off of each other, for sure.

“He’s the hardest worker out here.”

Conine, the first-born and only boy of three children, began pitching more as he ascended the ranks. He threw three pitches for strikes, and his mechanics kept his arm fresh and healthy. He out-thought older hitters.

When he didn’t pitch, he caught, which he said afforded him the opportunity to see the game played from an entirely different perspective.

Conine arrived at El Modena prior to the 2011-12 school year, and his size caught Kliner’s eye. Rarely, if ever, had Kliner seen a young catcher so skillful.

“He was the type of catcher that if you took him out, it got real ugly back there real fast,” he said.

While Conine apprenticed on junior varsity in 2012, El Modena’s varsity team won 18 games and the Century League’s bronze medal. Kliner promoted Conine in the summer and inserted him into his rotation, removing him from behind the plate entirely.

In 43.1 innings pitched in 2013, Conine maintained a 1.94 earned-run average. Kliner called what he did as a sophomore “phenomenal.”

“I knew I didn’t have a permanent spot, so I was always battling, showing what I had on the mound,” Conine said.

Conine also played third base, but he hit poorly, his .143 batting average the product of a leap in the quality of pitching.

***

Mononucleosis caught Conine his junior season, and the illness affected his play.

Though he never asked for time off, Kliner said Conine often went home from practice and crashed while doing homework. Conine said he often fought to stay awake in class. El Modena won seven games in 2014, its lowest win total in more than decade.

Still, Conine hit close to .400 in 56 at-bats, while remaining a stalwart in the rotation. He received second-team All-Century League laurels at season’s end.

Kliner believes had he been healthy, college programs would’ve began recruiting Conine sooner.

Conine joined the New York Yankees’ scout team this past summer, where he played once a week – often for only one or two innings – alongside other high school upperclassmen and soon-to-be college freshmen. The national exposure led to phone calls from scouts, and as the summer waned, college coaches began attending his practices and games.

The more Conine pitched in the offseason, the more velocity he gained on his fastball. Typically thrown in the high-80s, his fastball at one point touched 91 miles per hour – the perfect complement to his offspeed pitches. Conine also commanded the strike zone, which kept his pitch counts low and preserved his arm.

This past fall, Kliner said, during preseason tournaments, more heads began turning.

“He threw everything for strikes: his fastball, his curveball, cutter, change – they’re all plus pitches,” Kliner continued. “There was a game he struck out 10 guys while throwing only something like 71 pitches.”

Cal State Fullerton offered Conine a scholarship in the fall, which he accepted in November.

“It was just the right choice,” he said.

***

Conine sees what Cal State Fullerton’s coaching staff did for the careers of Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza, and believes it can do the same for his.

As freshmen, Eshelman and Garza in 2013 received troves of postseason awards, including Baseball America and Louisville Slugger All-America honors. Now juniors, they’ll likely be selected in next month’s Major League Baseball Draft.

Despite again hitting close to .400 this spring, Conine will focus on his pitching in the offseason, with the goal of earning a spot in next year’s rotation. If Eshelman and Garza sign major league contracts this summer, Conine may very well do it.

“I always have high expectations for myself,” he said. “But I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do.”

El Modena last week lost its playoff game, a 1-0 nine-inning thriller against Fountain Valley.

Conine threw eight shutout frames and struck out six batters, lowering his ERA in 78 innings pitched to an absurd 0.70 as a result.

Fountain Valley coach Deric Tanagisawa told OCVarsity after the game: “That’s probably one of the best high school arms I’ve seen in a long time in terms of poise and commanding the strike zone.”

Kliner has been at El Modena long enough to remember Conine’s predecessors: Freddie Freeman, now a sixth-year first baseman for the Atlanta Braves; David Hill, a stud junior pitcher at the University of San Diego and another likely June draftee; and Austin Boyle, an integral reliever for Cal Poly Pomona, the No. 1 team in the California Collegiate Athletic Association.

Conine, Kliner said, “falls right in line.”

“He’s one of a kind,” the coach added. “Guys on this team hope to be in his situation one day. He can definitely be the standard which guys live by.”

Contact the writer: 714-704-3790 or bwhitehead@ocregister.com


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