By Emanuel Lee
For one fleeting moment, the Palo Alto baseball team had every reason to think it could topple St. Francis in its Central Coast Section Division I playoff semifinal Wednesday at San Jose Municipal Stadium.
Then reality set in.
The No. 5-seeded Vikings struck first, but it wasn't nearly enough in a 8-3 loss. Palo Alto finished the season 18-16 and made a stirring run in the section playoffs, knocking off No. 4 seed Bellarmine in the quarterfinals.
"We didn't return one starter (from last year's 27-7 team), and this squad flat-out overachieved," Palo Alto coach Erick Raich said. "They squeezed every ounce of athletic ability they had out of themselves. We would've had to play close to a perfect game to beat St. Francis."
Which the Vikings didn't come close to doing.
Palo Alto did strike first, scoring a run in the top of the third inning on a sacrifice-fly from Austin Poore. However, in what would be a recurring theme, the top-seeded Lancers (28-4) had an answer every time Palo Alto threatened to make things close.
St. Francis scored three times in the bottom of the third, highlighted by a two-run double from Michael Strem, who finished with three hits and five RBI. The Lancers got the leadoff man on in the inning as a result of a Palo Alto error, a pivotal moment in the game.
"That's a huge turning point right there," Raich said.
The Palo Alto players felt the same way.
"You can never lose hope, but it's hard to watch when you get that first run and then can't hold the opponent down partly because we let them in," said Paly first baseman Rowen Thompson, who collected two of the team's five hits. "It's tough for morale in the dugout as well. Whenever you can get out in front, it's really huge from a momentum standpoint. It also gives you confidence you can win the game, but we just couldn't finish it off."
Vikings' starter Danny Erlich allowed three hits and three earned runs in three innings before being lifted for Rohit Ramkumar with no outs in the bottom of the fourth inning. St. Francis scored three times in that frame to take a 6-1 lead.
To its credit, Palo Alto fought to the very end, scoring two runs in the sixth off Strem, who allowed three runs over six innings while striking out eight. However, the Lancers answered with two of their own in the bottom half to account for the final score.
"Honestly, I think they're a lot more athletic than we are," Raich said. "The speed of the game looked a little fast for our guys at times."
St. Francis advances to face WCAL rival Serra in Saturday's title game at San Jose Muni, starting at 7 p.m. This will be the first meeting of the team in a CCS finale since 1983. The No. 2-seeded Padres (27-6) advanced with a 6-0 win over No. 3 San Benito (23-7).
Serra will be looking for its first CCS title since 2009 while St. Francis hasn't won since 2001.