FULLERTON – JSerra has fielded some excellent baseball teams over the past dozen years.
League champions, top-ranked teams and teams that went deep into the playoffs with talented rosters. The Lions played in a CIF Southern Section championship game for the first time last season and lost to Harvard-Westlake in the Division 1 final.
“And this,” JSerra coach Brett Kay said, “is probably the one team you didn’t think was going to win it.”
This was the team that did.
JSerra won its first CIF-SS baseball championship Friday with a 3-1 win over Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks in the Division 1 final at Cal State Fullerton.
At one point, the Lions were 6-9 in March and lost six of their first seven Trinity League games. They became one of the hotter teams in Southern California late in the regular season and it carried over into the playoffs.
The Lions (23-10) won Friday night by scoring twice in the bottom of the sixth to break a 1-1 tie.
With one out JSerra senior second baseman Owen Fuller hit a sky-scraping fly to deep center field. Notre Dame center fielder Dean West made a great effort to chase it down but could not get to it, and Fuller made the turn at second base with intentions.
“I looked up, got the signal (from third-base coach Matt Orloff) and kept going,” Fuller said.
Jonathan Mendez followed with a walk. With the Notre Dame infield drawn in, JSerra’s Dominic Smaldino slapped the ball to the right of second base to drive in Fuller for a 2-1 lead. Mendez, who went to third on the Smaldino hit, scored on David Horn’s sacrifice fly to make it 3-1.
Tyler Gough, who entered the game in the fifth inning to replace JSerra starting pitcher JJ Hollis, struck out three in a row in the seventh inning to seal the win.
Hollis pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings and gave up three hits.
The season continues for both teams in the CIF SoCal Regional playoffs that begin May 31. Brackets will be released May 29. JSerra won the SoCal Division 1 Regional championship last season.
Notre Dame (24-8-1) tied the score in the top of the sixth inning. Brandon Gonzaga and Jack Gurevitch opened the inning with back-to-back walks. Knights pinch-hitter Adrian Shlesinger bunted, JSerra catcher Brandon Chang’s throw was just wide of the mark and got past first-baseman Smaldino to enable Gonzaga to score.
One strikeout later, Notre Dame’s Ryan Limerick hit a ground ball to shortstop Mendez, who threw to Chang for the second out. Gough, throwing with impressive velocity, ended the inning with a strikeout, his fifth of the 11 batters he faced.
Chang made an outstanding play in the top of the second inning. Notre Dame’s Madden Ocko led off with a single and advanced to second base on a balk. Anthony Revalas hit a line drive to that JSerra center fielder Jack Bourne picked up on the hop, gunned the ball to home where Change gathered it a couple of feet in front of the plate, reached behind him and tagged the back of Ocko’s right foot for the third out.
JSerra took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third. Chang walked on a 3-2 count, went to second base on Bourne’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Lamb’s triple to center field.
Horn, a senior, said it was satisfying to get Kay the first CIF-SS championship in the 16th season of Kay’s coaching tenure at JSerra.
“It means the world,” Horn said. “That was one of the biggest motivators for us as a team and for me personally and the seniors, to see the time and effort he puts into our team and the players individually. It’s special.”
And it was special for Horn to be on the first JSerra team to get a CIF-SS title, given the Lions’ long list of outstanding players who have gone on to college and professional baseball success.
“Guys like (MLB players) Royce Lewis and Austin Hedges, and our team last year,” Horn said. “And the fact we had this group of guys that were down so early, people counted us out. It just shows the kind of fight we had in us.”