PROVO — No team in the Pioneer League has won more games the past three years than the Provo Angels. In their three seasons of existence, the Angels have claimed five of six Southern Division split-season titles.

For all of its success, though, one thing has eluded Provo — a Pioneer League championship. Each year, the Angels have advanced to the league championship series only to lose in a three-game set to the Northern Division winner.

After posting a league-best 54-22 record in 2003, Provo once again fell in the championship series. In the final game, a Billings pitcher tossed a no-hitter against the Angels, who led the league in hitting.

Not that manager Tom Kotchman is losing any sleep over being a perennial runner-up. He shrugged off any suggestion that he might be frustrated by the lack of a championship trophy.

"If we win, we win," said Kotchman, whose team will open the season today in Casper. Friday's game was rained out. "Anything can happen in a three-game set, especially when you have to travel 11 or 12 hours (on a bus). That doesn't bother me."

At this level or rookie professional baseball, winning a championship is not the ultimate goal. The top priority is developing solid players for the parent club, the Anaheim Angels. Judging by that criterion, Kotchman has been wildly successful. A number of Provo Angel alumni, including his son, Casey, are making noise in Anaheim's farm system.

"You could have a real old club here and win, but you're probably not developing (players)," Kotchman said. "Last year we probably had one of the youngest teams in the league and still won. And won big. You could have a bunch of 22- and 23-year-old guys here and win the league but not really accomplish anything, and those guys would be out of baseball in another year or two. That club last year, I didn't tell them that very much, but there are a lot of good players on that club that are going to play in the big leagues."

That aside, he admits there is a part of him that would like to see Provo capture a league title. "Selfishly, I'd like to win a championship so the kids can get a ring on their finger," Kotchman said.

Even without a championship on their rsum, the Angels have established a standard of excellence. This year's players are well-aware of the high expectations. "They know what the track record is here, or they will know," Kotchman said. "We're going to be competitive. They're going to understand real quick that it's not going to be fun losing around here."

The 2004 roster includes four players who were with the Angels last year. Another, outfielder Michael Perdomo, was on Provo's 2002 squad. He's back this season after missing last season while recovering from major elbow surgery.

"I'm looking forward to bringing home a championship," said the Miami native. "Two years ago we almost won it. We hope to win it this year."

Joshua Leblanc, a sixth-round draft pick of the Anaheim Angels, is eager to make an impression on the organization as well as the fans in his first season of professional baseball. "I'm very excited," Leblanc said. "It's a lifelong dream I'm living right now."

He's no stranger to success, having won a couple of championships at Southern A&M in Houston, and he plans to help extend Provo's tradition of winning seasons. "The Angels are used to winning," he said. "It's the philosophy of everybody here."

It's a philosophy Kotchman instills in his players.

"Everything's better when you win. Your food tastes better, your wife looks better, you don't kick your dog as much," Kotchman said. "My wife's looked good the last three years. And she can't cook, so the food has tasted much better. It's pretty bad when you marry the only Italian who can't cook."

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