The Warriors moved into the catbird’s seat to get their chance to be final state No. 1 in baseball due to a result from San Diego on Wednesday and they have now sealed the deal. Their heart-pounding triumph in the bottom of the seventh inning over Los Gatos in Friday’s CIF Central Coast Section Open Division championship means they’ll be No. 1 in California for 2018, although they will have to wait until Monday, June 4 before it’s official. Go inside for all details plus check out what major upset occurred in the CCS Division I final.
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Sophomore Steven Zobac kept repeating the phrase over and over to every Valley Christian High teammate he was hugging after Friday night’s CIF Central Coast Section Open Division championship game at San Jose’s Municipal Stadium had ended: “I’ve never won a game before by being hit by a pitch.”
It was difficult not grabbing Zobac immediately to offer two corrections. First, he did a lot more than just get hit by a pitch for the Warriors to prevail 4-3 in their title game over Los Gatos. Second, it wasn’t just a game that was decided, either.
Valley Christian (29-3-1) came into the week as the No. 2 team in the Cal-Hi Sports State Top 20 with its other primary contender for the final No. 1 ranking being Eastlake of Chula Vista, the defending champion of the CIF San Diego Section Open Division and the 2017 State Team of the Year. It was a close call between the two for which one would move up after previous No. 1 Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood) lost the week before in its very first CIF Southern Section Division I playoff game to Valencia.
Eastlake started the week with just three losses on its slate as well, but plays in a section where a double-elimination playoff format is used. In those situations, it’s possible for a team to lose a game and still win its section title. Valley Christian didn’t have that wiggle-room in the CCS so when this week’s rankings were done it was explained that Eastlake needed to win out in order to potentially end the season as the state’s No. 1 team. The Titans lost on Wednesday 3-1 to Poway, which set up Valley Christian with a chance to win its section crown on Friday night. The Warriors advanced to the CCS Open Division final with an 8-0 victory in last Tuesday’s semifinals against San Benito of Hollister.
Los Gatos hasn’t been in the State Top 20 all season, but earned its opportunity to win the CCS Open crown by knocking off previous state No. 6 Serra of San Mateo in last Tuesday’s semifinals. Serra had gone 2-1 in matchups vs. Valley Christian in the West Catholic Athletic League regular season and league playoffs. Plus, after Los Gatos league rival Los Altos pulled out an upset win over Bellarmine of the WCAL in the CCS Division I final earlier on Friday, everyone inside the home of the San Jose Giants California League team was reminded that anything can happen in any one-game high school baseball championship.
“The pitch hit me right on my thigh,” said Zobac, who has a twin sister Kacey who plays softball and is one of the top sophomores in Northern California. “Whatever it takes. My first thought was that no one can touch me on my way to first base and after that everything just melted. It was tough because we had to grind, we had to battle. But it was fun to come out with the victory.”
Valley Christian entered the seventh inning with a 3-1 lead and three outs away from wrapping up its title and putting a stamp on the final No. 1 state ranking. Zobac has been the team’s closer in many similar instances and took over after starting pitcher Patrick Wicklander held down the Wildcats, including striking out the first three batters of the game.
The Wildcats gave a preview in the top the sixth they weren’t going down quietly. With one out and teammate Tommy Troy at second base, Thomas Moore delivered a single to center and Troy was given the green light to try to score. Valley Christian centerfielder Coleman Brigman, however, unleashed a laser throw to the plate that beat the runner, who was tagged out by catcher Ryan Belluomini.
Trevor Allen got Los Gatos going in that top of the seventh with an infield single to lead it off. Alex Crawford also singled and then after a strikeout a soft liner into left field by Luke Short (also the Wildcats’ starting pitcher) loaded the bases. The Wildcat batters contributed to the drama by fouling off a lot of pitches, extending at-bats.
Zobac battled with Ben Stuhlmuller of Los Gatos first in that bases-loaded situation and finally was able to strike him out. Troy was up next and after another battle hit a high bouncer just to left of second base. Valley Christian shortstop Dawson Brigman tried to make the only play he had with two outs and the runners moving with a throw to first base. It was a high throw, however, and instead of ending the game, ticked off the glove of the first baseman and then ricocheted off the Wildcats’ dugout. Two runs scored. Instead of celebrating, Warriors’ players were stunned and knew that still with runners at second and third that another big hit by Los Gatos would put them in dire straits.
Ryan Williams, the No. 4 hitter, was up next for the Wildcats. Zobac kept getting the ball close to the plate and Williams kept fouling off pitches. The count reached 3-2 with three straight fouls before Zobac finally got Williams with a strikeout, keeping the score tied at 3-3.
In the bottom of the seventh, Cole Patterson came in to pitch for Los Gatos. Coleman Brigman, who had the huge throw earlier in the game, led off for Valley Christian and reached base with an infield hit. With Stanford commit Eddie Park batting, the Los Gatos catcher made an attempt to try to pick off Brigman at first base. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the throw sailed down the right field line. Brigman was then at third base with no outs. That forced Los Gatos head coach Nate Anderson to intentionally walk Park plus the next batter to load the bases and set up force outs at all bases.
Patterson struck out Jonathan Cymrot of the Warriors for the first out and then was obviously looking for a double-play grounder that would get Los Gatos out of the jam and force extra innings. That’s when Zobac stepped in and was hit by the pitch. It wasn’t an obvious hit by pitch, however, and it took a few moments to find out whether that’s what it was or the umpires had called a balk.
“Obviously as coaches we always want to finish with a two-run lead,” said Valley Christian head coach John Diatte, who won the eighth CCS title in his career (which reached 600 wins this season), including last year’s Open plus D1 crowns in 2007, 2008 and 2012. “We didn’t get that done so we had to find a way. We’ve won a CCS title before on a passed ball so we know that it’s hard for kids to play with a lot of pressure on the line. I told Nate that I thought his kids just played their hearts out.”
Valley Christian took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a sacrifice fly by Cymrot and a throwing error on a steal attempt. Los Gatos cut it 2-1 in the top of the second, helped by a passed ball, that allowed Allen to drive in Moore on a one-out grounder. The Warriors made it 3-1 in the bottom of the third on a sacrifice fly by Dawson Brigman with the bases loaded. Both starting pitchers, however, got key outs to limit the damage in those innings and set the stage for the dramatic seventh.
There will be more about Valley Christian’s championship season on Monday, June 4, when the official State Team of the Year announcement is made. That will have to wait until all of the state’s sectional baseball playoffs are concluded, which will be one more weekend.
In the CCS Division I championship game:
Los Altos 5, Bellarmine (San Jose) 3
This one would have to go down as a massive upset even though it is baseball and anything can happen in a one-game playoff.
The Bells (25-8) entered with the No. 9 ranking in the state and a perfect record in games against schools from outside of the West Catholic Athletic League – 16-0 to be exact, including the state championship of the 32-team Boras Classic.
Los Altos (15-14) lost seven games in a row at one point in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League, but that was a good league and the Eagles have the type of No. 1 pitcher (Alex Reelfs) who can help a team get hot in the playoffs. They did and they beat the Bells with Roelfs pitching six strong innings and teammate Simon Heck delivering a pair of doubles that drove in three runs.
Bellarmine scored two of its runs in the bottom of the first and had Roelfs on the ropes. The Santa Clara-bound pitcher walked in one run and hit a batter for another one. Still, he struck out two of three batters he faced with the bases loaded and only gave up one run after that until giving way to teammate Ryan Baum, who retired the Bells in order in the bottom of the seventh.
“I felt great to start the game, but all of a sudden I felt off,” Reelfs said. “Thank God I have a good team behind me that picked me up.
“We had all the confidence in the world coming into today even though we’ve had a rough season. In the playoffs, our pitching just got dialed in. We only gave up six runs in four games.”
Wes Harper got the Bells to within 5-3 on an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh, but Reelfs struck out the next batter and in the sixth all that he allowed was an infield single.
Los Altos won the D1 section title after losing in the CCS D1 final last season.