It may be the fourth section title for the Redwood Christian varsity baseball team, but it feels like a first as RCS competes in a higher division, relying on every player from the fourth pitcher in a game to secure the win in extra innings to a pinch hitter earning the walk-off winning hit.
After moving up from North Coast Section (NCS) Division Five to Division Four, the Eagles were faced with new opponents and a new level of competition. It took a true team effort to overcome each challenge. “While it was a goal of the team (to win NCS), you don’t know how the players will do after winning section last year. It was satisfying to see a senior-heavy team go out on top, but also to see the players come together and rise to every challenge they faced,” says Head Coach Jim Cleveland, describing the unity and hard work to which each player had to commit in order to meet the team goal of taking the title again this year. And it was not without many moments of pressure and excitement.
The Eagles faced the Highlanders from Piedmont (Oakland) on Saturday, June 2nd, at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. The Highlanders came into the game after knocking off the No.1 seed Middletown the prior Wednesday. The Eagles faced a tough playoff bracket as well, defeating No. 3 seed Fort Bragg and then nudging past No. 10 seed St. Mary’s (Albany) in a 12-inning nail biter to reach the championship game.
The matchup in the championship contest was tight. RCS came out swinging, loading the bases in the top of the first. PHS pitcher C. Gerhardy struck out the next batter to end the inning scoreless. In the second inning, RCS lit up the score box with a RBI single by L. Luebker to score C. Guzman. A. Saake continued the rally with a base hit to centerfield to score both Luebker and M. McElroy. A. Williams rallied with another RBI to score M. Dzoan, and the Eagles finished the inning leading 4-0.
The Highlanders responded, however, in a true battle fashion. M. Bekes hit to the left-center warning track for a double to score the Highlanders’ first run. P. Woolcott hit a ground ball to third base but the ball got away, scoring Bekes. The rally ended when RCS pitcher, Carlton, came in the with bases loaded and two outs, and got the third out to hold the Eagles lead. The inning concluded with a score of 4-3.
The Eagles scored another run in the third when Saake laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt to score D. Nam. The game continued scoreless until a last-chance Highlanders rally in the bottom of the seventh. Relief pitcher Williams found himself in a bind when PHS loaded the bases with one out. “It could have gone either way. They hit, they win. But Alex did not back down under the pressure, facing the 4th and 5th batters with the game on the line,” Coach Cleveland recaps. Williams indeed attacked, striking out two batters. “It was a defensive walk-off win.”
The championship game ended in almost the exact opposite fashion from the offensive “walk-off” win the Eagles experienced in the Semifinals when they topped Saint Mary’s in the bottom of the 12th inning. RCS batter T. Gallarzan’s first hit of the season was this game’s winning double down the left field line to score Williams for a final score of 2-1. Of the team’s success in key moments of the tournament, Coach Cleveland shares, “They executed the bunt game really well. It was a true team effort.” Cleveland refers to clutch sacrifice bunting in all four rounds by C. Costa, Saake, and Luebker, to name a few. Furthermore, most rallies for the Eagles also came in nail-biting, two-out rally fashion.
A team effort from the bullpen was also a key component in the Eagle’s success. While there is no doubting the leadership of Stanford-bound Williams, both Guzman and Luebker started games in the tournament and Carlton secured the 12-inning win in the semifinals. The one constant in the pitching lineup was the “the glue” behind the plate. Catcher Dzoan remained a solid force as pitchers rotated in and out. He came through in several pressure situations. Cleveland reflects, “I was confident to call any pitch because I knew Dzoan would keep it in front of him.” This includes calling a slider with bases loaded to strike out the final batter in the championship game.
So, what will happen next year?
RCS graduates nine seniors this year. However, with key starters returning including Dzoan, Saake, and (their top returning pitcher) Carlton, the Eagles will be equipped to make another NCS run. While it will be an admittedly younger team, it will be yet another challenge for the Eagles to tackle. And we like their track record of overcoming challenges.