OAKLAND – It was a familiar scene for the Grizzlies – they were playing in the O.co Coliseum in the NCS finals against the top seeded De La Salle Spartans.
The only difference this time was the sport – baseball instead of football.
Unfortunately, the outcome was the same.
Cal High baseball team’s improbable run to the NCS championship came up just short after a 3-2 loss to the Spartans last Saturday night.
The Grizzlies had become the story of the playoffs, sneaking into the tournament as the No. 10 seed with a 12-12 record.
But Cal (15-13) flipped a switch once in the postseason and rattled off wins against No. 7 Bishop O’Dowd, No. 2 Deer Valley, and No. 3 Monte Vista, all on the road, to reach the finals for the first time in school history.
Saturday’s game was a tense affair that remained close until the bitter end. But in another familiar sight for Cal, the Spartans were the ones celebrating an NCS championship at the end of the night.
Junior ace Nate D’Emilio, who started Cal’s last three playoff games, did not pitch in favor of senior Cody Ball, who pitched four innings and allowed three runs.
Coach Dan Ward made the decision based on D’Emilio’s five innings of work in Cal 5-2 win over the Monte Vista three days earlier.
Playing in the Coliseum’s larger field made a difference early in the game. De La Salle’s leadoff batter Hunter Mercado-Hood hit a triple in the first inning and later scored.
“The field took over,” said coach Dan Ward. “The surroundings played a part, but after the first inning, we settled down.”
Senior first baseman Kevin Farley also made use of the abundant foul territory by chasing down a foul ball in the early innings for Cal.
Spartan pitcher Andrew Buckley, who threw 113 pitches in a complete game with 10 strikeouts, had early success against Grizzly hitters.
“We definitely helped him out early by swinging at some bad pitches,” said Ward.
But in the second inning, Cal struck back. Farley stole second base and scored on a base hit by senior Tyler Johnson. Junior outfielder Blake Guardino then tripled to score Johnson.
The Spartans answered with two runs of their own in the fourth inning, including the decisive run on a perfectly executed squeeze play. This prompted a pitching change for the Grizzlies.
“Cody had pitched his game,” said Ward.
Junior Adam Kimmel came in to the game in the fifth inning and was helped out by an odd play.
With a man on first and no outs, he got the batter to pop out in foul territory near third base. Sophomore shortstop Cameron Santos secured the ball for the out, then dropped it.
The confused Spartan baserunner thought the ball was foul, so he began a leisurely trot back to first base. Santos threw to first to complete an unlikely double play that cleared the bases for Kimmel.
“He really saved my butt on that one,” said Kimmel.
Kimmel would shut down the Spartans for the last three innings with few problems.
“I don’t think about what had happened, only what’s happening right now,” said Kimmel. “I was thinking , ‘Play my game. Stay calm’.”
The tension mounted in the later innings as the Grizzlies tried to get the tying run across the plate. Cal had men in scoring position in the last two innings, but couldn’t get them home.
“We got to get in scoring position with these new bats,” said Ward. “We just couldn’t execute.”
The pressure didn’t faze Kimmel, though. He kept the score close in the final innings by not allowing any runs, staying calm using a trick he’d used before.
“There wasn’t much tension. I was singing a song in my head,” he said. “It was ‘All They Know’ by Lupe Fiasco.”
This was Cal High’s third NCS championship game at the Coliseum in five years. Cal made it to the NCS football title games in 2010 and 2007.
Grizzly students and other Cal fans packed most of the seats opened at the Coliseum for the last hurrah of Cal’s 2011-12 season.
Principal Mark Corti was on hand and recognized what the school’s sports success means for Cal.
“It shows the tremendous dedication of the athletes, coaches, and our school spirit,” said Corti. “They have a strong desire to be the best.”
With many key players returning next year, Cal baseball has the tools to make the Grizzlies a familiar sight in the Coliseum for years to come.
“That’s my goal,” said Kimmel. “To get back here next year.”