April 27, 2006
By Jeremy Herb
The Santa Clara
Before he reached high school, senior Eric Newton was already a Bronco in training.
He just didn't know.
When the Bronco infielder was still in middle school, he was already playing under current Santa Clara head coach Mark O'Brien at a Stanford summer baseball camp. O'Brien was a coach at Stanford, and Newton returned year after year to O'Brien's program.
So, when O'Brien was hired at Santa Clara in 2001, Newton -- who was conveniently entering college -- was one of the first players O'Brien signed.
"I was recruited by Cal Poly, Cal and received a letter from Stanford, but I had known Mark O'Brien for a while," Newton said. "We hit it off from the beginning. He liked me in the camps and used me as an example, and I just kept going."
Now, after playing under O'Brien for four years, Newton has emerged as Santa Clara's biggest power source, leading the West Coast Conference with 12 home runs and the Broncos with 41 RBIs.
"When I look back, I'm proud of where he's come from," O'Brien said. "He's overcome adversity; he struggled early on, but he was persistent."
Two years ago, the thought of Newton leading the league in home runs was far fetched. As a sophomore, he only hit two homers and had a meager .237 batting average.
But just as O'Brien had given him instruction as a little-leaguer, O'Brien had a cure for Newton's hitting woes in the form of an old coaching buddy.
"We had a hitting instructor from Arizona come in, and he kind of worked with me a little bit and kind of evened things out," Newton said. "Once I made one small adjustment that he suggested, it just kind of fell in from there, and, after that, I kind of did it on my own in the cages."
In his junior year, Newton earned a starting job and took advantage of the extra at-bats. He led the team with nine home runs and set the stage for his league-leading homers this year.
"In the first couple of years I was here, I didn't get much playing time," Newton said. "I finally got the opportunity last year, and I just ran with it and made the most out of it."
O'Brien said that Newton's perseverance helped his hitting most.
"He didn't give up, but he just kept working. He kept a good attitude, and it just clicked," O'Brien said.
As the league leader in home runs, Newton has a legitimate shot at earning the WCC's Player of the Year honor. But while he acknowledged the award "would be awesome," Newton was far more concerned with helping the Broncos reach the conference playoffs for the first time since he has put on a Santa Clara uniform.
"I think we're right in the race, and I'd much rather see my team succeed than my individual play," Newton said.
Unlike in basketball, where every team makes the conference tournament to crown a champion, only the two teams with the best conference records make baseball's WCC playoffs.
The format changed this year, as the conference was previously split up into two divisions in order to determine who reached the championship series.
Currently, the Broncos sit tied for sixth place, but are only two games out of a playoff spot.
Newton also acknowledged that the Bronco's new ballpark, Schott Stadium, has probably helped his home run total this year. The Broncos moved into the stadium last April.
"The fences aren't as deep, and the outfield is smaller," Newton said. "The wind helps out, as well, because it blows out."
While O'Brien's connection to Newton is rare, he isn't the only Bronco tied to Newton's early baseball years.
Senior infielder Dustin Realini played in the same little league as Newton in Cupertino when the two were about ten years old. After Newton moved to San Jose, the two didn't expect to play together again, but the Cupertino all-stars were reunited when Realini transferred from Washington State after his freshman year.
"He keeps his head straight," Realini said of Newton. "He's like our silent assassin."
O'Brien said that Newton's demeanor is "night and day" on and off the field, as he called the senior one of the most intelligent infielders he has coached.
"He talks the game real well," O'Brien said. "A big part of his leadership is how he carries himself."
With the end of his Bronco career forthcoming, Newton said he has received some interest from pro scouts, though his future is still uncertain.
"It's up in the air right now. I'm just glad that this is my last quarter, so I'm just happy to be done," Newton said. "But then after that, hopefully I'll continue playing baseball. If not, then I'll probably stay in the area here, but I don't know."
On Tuesday, Newton made his final trip to Sunken Diamond Stadium at Stanford, where his Bronco career really began. Fittingly, he scored the winning run, breaking a 1-1 tie and starting a five-run 10th inning rally that gave the Broncos the 6-1 extra-inning victory.
The Broncos' playoff drive continues at Schott Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday against Saint Mary's.