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El-Haji a major contributor at MJC
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Ceres' Pharoah El-Haji faced some of the top pitchers in the nation while playing for the Stanislaus Heat last summer.

"It definitely gave him a headstart because they played some good competition," said Modesto Junior College coach Bo Aiello.

El-Haji, a 2003 Ceres High graduate, helped lead the Pirates to a second-place finish in the Central Valley Conference (16-5) and into the California Community College Baseball Playoffs this season. Modesto (27-9) held the No. 1 ranking in Northern California for two weeks.

"We're the first team from Modesto to be ranked first in NorCal," El-Haji said.

El-Haji was Modesto's designated hitter.

"I didn't think I would get as much playing time as I did but they just kept calling my name more and more," El-Haji said. "They got pretty comfortable with me coming in in pressure situations."

Added Aiello: "He's earned his spot. We didn't just give it to him."

El-Haji struggled at the beginning of the year.

"It's a hard thing to come in and DH," El-Haji said. "You're sitting on the bench and you have to keep focused the whole game."

Added Aiello: "He struggled offensively for a short period of time. Then he got an opportunity to play and started contributing tremendously."

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound freshman batted .329 with three homers, one triple, six doubles and 14 RBIs in 73 at-bats during the regular season. He also scored 15 runs and had a .562 slugging percentage and .359 on-base percentage.

"He's one of our best hitters," Aiello said.

Coaches from the Central Valley Conference shared the same sentiment when they selected all-conference teams.

El-Haji earned second-team, all-Central Valley Conference honors.

"I was really surprised," El-Haji said. "I didn't think I would get noticed because I didn't get as many at bats as some of the other starters."

El-Haji thrived in crucial situations.

On May 3, he hit a three-run homer to left-center field in the bottom of the seventh inning. His clutch home run tied it at 7-all and the Pirates ended up beating Reedley 8-7 in 11 innings.

On March 18, he doubled home the go-ahead runs in the eighth as the Pirates edged Fresno City College 9-7.

"He was a very dangerous person to pitch to," Aiello said.

El-Haji will be expected to contribute more during his sophomore year. He could start in left field in place of Matt Berezay. Berezay, who was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft, signed with the University of Pacific.

"Hopefully, he'll improve his defense and become one of the outfielders next year," Aiello said. "It's all up to him."

El-Haji wants to transfer to a four-year university when he's done playing for the Pirates. He'll continue to study fire science and hopefully, play baseball.

"I don't have any set school I would like to play for," he said. "I just want to play baseball for as long as I can."

This summer, El-Haji will suit up for the Lafayette Generals, an 18-and-under team from the Bay Area. Former Stanislaus Heat teammate and current San Jose State player James Shackelford will join him.

"He's pretty zoned in on what it takes to be successful," Aiello said.

"He's also a quality individual. He has great character and great family background." - By DALE BUTLER / Staff Reporter of The Ceres (Calif.) Courier