It’s another memorable week for the Valley Christian of San Jose baseball team. The Warriors, ranked No. 1 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Top 20, used one big inning to beat No. 2 Bellarmine of San Jose 5-2 on Friday afternoon on their home field. This came three days after one of their pitchers struck out 18 batters in a no-hitter.
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If there’s a coach who understands the big picture of a high school baseball season, it’s John Diatte, the longtime leader of the program at Valley Christian of San Jose. He takes things one week at a time and knows that the ultimate objective is to win the CIF Central Coast Section Open Division championship.
“Everybody knows where we’re ranked,” said Diatte after his team dispatched Bellarmine of San Jose 5-2 on Friday in a West Catholic Athletic League matchup that brought together a rare No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle of state-ranked squads. “But I’ve watched plenty of teams over the years ranked high all season that don’t win their last game. Our goal is just to make sure we’re in the best position we can be to win that last game.”
The Warriors (18-1-1) and Bells both did their part to set up Friday’s showdown in the last two weeks. Valley Christian went to the Hard 9 National Classic in Southern California and won the title with a 2-1 win in the final against Mission Viejo. Bellarmine (16-3), which earlier this season swept a doubleheader against Huntington Beach (one of the top teams in Southern California), won the NorCal portion of the Boras Classic and will later play JSerra of San Juan Capistrano for the Boras Classic state title.
Valley Christian also put itself in a strong position to win Friday’s game in the bottom of the third inning. Sophomore Eddie Park and Nick Marincoz got the rally going with leadoff singles. With one out, Steven Zobac then plated the first run of the game with an RBI single that scored Park. After a strikeout, the Warriors did something amazing by scoring four more runs in the inning on five straight first-pitch singles.
One of those RBI singles came on a perfectly-executed bunt by Jack McGrew. The others were on straight singles from Ryan Belluomini, Zach Barnao and Park. Another single in the uprising that loaded the bases but didn’t score a run came from leadoff hitter Coleman Brigman.
The Bells, who were mysteriously ranked higher than Valley Christian in one national poll (MaxPreps), began to scratch into that lead in the top of the fourth on an RBI single by Kyle Rauscher. Then in the top of the fifth, Connor Henriques hit a pop up not far behind third base with two runners on base that was misplayed by three Valley Christian fielders into a double, allowing one run to score. With runners at second and third and two outs, however, Bellarmine couldn’t get closer as Valley Christian’s second pitcher of the game, William Kempner, got a groundout from the Bells’ Wes Harper. Valley Christian started with senior Kevin Pence on the mound.
For the top of the sixth and top of the seventh, the Bells faced Park, a two-way standout who was MVP of the Hard 9 National Classic. They didn’t score and Park struck out two of the three batters he faced in the top of the seventh.
“We know that the seniors want to repeat (as the CCS Open champion),” Park said. “But I came to the school in my mind to win four in a row. With the young players we have and the guys in my (sophomore) class, I know we’re capable of that.”
One complicating factor for both Valley Christian and Bellarmine is that the CCS Open Division this year will consist of an eight-team bracket and not 16 teams. Plus, according to section bylaws, league champions from as many as six “A” leagues will be automatic qualifiers for that Open Division.
“If there’s one league with a co-champion then that would take away another spot and if there’s another league after that then it could be down to zero spots,” Diatte explained. “To win the Open, you’ve really got to win your league.”
It’s another complicated process from the one CIF section in the state that is the king of complicated playoff processes, but Diatte said at least all of the teams know what they have to do before the season starts.
In the WCAL, which is one top league in the state that still doesn’t have teams play a series against each other one week at a time, there also is a league playoff tournament held once every team has played each other twice. The WCAL didn’t have those tournaments in other sports this school year, but will have one in baseball this year. It often happens that the regular season champion doesn’t win the league tourney. If that were to happen this year, both teams would qualify for the CCS Open Division. And if there are more than eight league champions or co-champions eligible for the CCS Open Division, a playoff points system would be used to pick the top eight teams.
Valley Christian improved to 6-1 in league with the win, but the Bells fell to 4-3. They haven’t actually lost outside of the WCAL all season long, which has contributed to their lofty rankings. The team that is tied with the Warriors at 6-1 is Archbishop Mitty, which also won twice this week and could move up into the top five of the state rankings itself next week. Those teams will play next Saturday. Valley Christian returns to action Tuesday at home against Serra of San Mateo and will be looking to avenge its only loss. The Padres won 3-2 in the Warriors’ second league game.
Senior Patrick Wicklander is expected to take the mound for Valley Christian in the next Tuesday game. He pitched last Tuesday at Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco and finished with 18 strikeouts in a no-hitter. He wasn’t available for Friday’s game and in fact nearly reached his pitching count limit in the no-hitter.
“We all got a lot closer after that trip to Southern California,” Park said. “I was in left field for (Patrick’s game) and got to basically stand there and watch it. It was awesome. I was happy for him.”