Two years ago, the best baseball team in Southern California was San Juan Capistrano JSerra. Off to an 11-1 start, the Lions’ season abruptly ended when the pandemic shut down campuses across California. Last season, with 13 Division 1 recruits, JSerra was supposed to win the Southern Section Division 1 title. Except the Lions were blanked in the final.
This season, JSerra started league play 1-5. The Lions were forgotten. Their chance for a first CIF title had supposedly passed them by. Fast forward to Friday night at Cal State Fullerton, where their joyous victory celebration after a 3-1 win over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame served as a cleansing moment to rid the frustrations of the past.
“It’s unbelievable,” first baseman Dominic Smaldino said. “Our chemistry is off the charts. We got hot. When things were tough, we stuck together.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Smaldino ended a 1-1 deadlock with an RBI single off Notre Dame ace Cole Clark to score Owen Fuller, who had tripled. Then David Horn hit a sacrifice fly for a two-run advantage. It put closer Tyler Gough in the position on which he thrives — closing out memorable victories. He struck out the side.
Andrew Lamb hit the ball over the head of Notre Dame center fielder Dean West in the third inning for an RBI triple and a 1-0 JSerra lead. Gough came in from the bullpen in the top of fifth to strike out West with the bases loaded for a decisive moment.
But Notre Dame wasn’t done. After two walks in the top of the sixth, the Knights executed what has become their favorite play in the playoffs — a bunt. Adam Schlesinger got it down and the throw to first was wild, allowing the tying run to score.
Gough, an Oregon State commit, struck out six in 2 1/3 innings. He walked four, but Notre Dame just couldn’t produce when it needed to.
“We could not get a big hit with guys in scoring position,” Notre Dame coach Tom Dill said.
JSerra coach Brett Kay, who started the program 17 years ago, said, “Finally the monkey is off our backs. We’ve had some great teams not do it. Nobody gave this team a chance.”
Southern Section teams who qualify for the regional playoffs will have next week off before learning their opponents when pairings are announced on May 29. The eight-team single elimination brackets in five divisions will be played at home sites and are tentatively set for May 31, June 2 and June 4 depending on graduation schedules.
Burbank Burroughs 1, Moreno Valley 0: An unflappable Gunnar Nichols pitched the Bears to their first baseball championship, striking out 10, walking none and giving up five hits.
Mason Medina had an RBI single in the fourth inning to account for the game’s only run.
Baldwin Park 4, Hueneme 2: Pitcher Jason Martinez got a called third strike on a 3-and-2 count with two outs and two runners aboard in the bottom of the seventh inning to secure the first CIF title for Baldwin Park. He earlier scored the tiebreaking run in the top of the seventh on a sacrifice fly from Isaiah Ariza.
It was an emotional win for coach Jake Barendregt. He said his wife has been battling cancer. “I’m trying not to bawl,” he said. “At the same time it’s been one of my best years and my worst.”
Chatsworth 6, Granada Hills 4: For the second straight season, No. 1-seeded Granada Hills was eliminated in its first game of the City Section Open Division playoffs following a bye. Chatsworth pulled off the upset with five runs early on. Jose Ruedas struck out seven in five innings.
Roosevelt 1, Palisades 0: Andrew Contreras threw 62/3 innings of shutout ball and Adrian Godoy got the final out to send the Rough Riders into Wednesday’s 3 p.m. semifinals against Chatsworth at USC.
Birmingham 5, San Pedro 0: Daniel Flores threw a three-hitter and Gavin Taylor homered to help No. 2-seeded Birmingham advance to Wednesday’s Open Division semifinals at 6 p.m. against El Camino Real at USC.
El Camino Real 1, Sun Valley Poly 0: Oscar Lopez threw a no-hitter and the Royals pushed across a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to advance to the Open Division semifinals. Sean David had the walk-off hit.
Mission Viejo 2, Long Beach Millikan 1: Pitcher Sofia Elliott escaped a seventh-inning jam to lift the Diablos to the Division 2 championship. Mission Viejo gave up one run in four playoff victories.
La Verne Bonita 6, Las Flores Tesoro 0: Brooklyn Shroyer gave up five hits to lead Bonita to the Division 3 championship.
Temple City 4, Moorpark 2: Kassandra Gewecke pitched Temple City to the Division 4 title.