This past high school season was a tough one for the Gunn baseball program, as the Titans won only twice during a 30-game season and found themselves struggling in the tough SCVAL De Anza Division.
Manager Greg Matson, pitcher Ricky Navarro and pitcher/infielder Graham Fisher are all members of a Palo Alto Oaks squad that just wrapped up its Western Baseball Association regular season with a 14-2 record, and are now set to host the five-team AABC West Regional tournament starting Friday.
"It's great having Gunn grads on the team," Oaks general manager Steve Espinoza said. "The Oaks have been here for 65 years and it's always nice to get (Gunn) guys joining us."
Matson and Navarro are veterans on this Oaks squad, having both graduated from Gunn in 2002. Matson has been a member of the Oaks' organization for the past 12 years, and been a player/manager of the team for the past three seasons.
"Being an older guy and having a full-time job, it's kind of a release for me every Sunday," Navarro said of what keeps him playing. "You don't have to worry about work, just play baseball. It brings me back to when I was 13, playing Babe Ruth. It's always good to have the Palo Alto name on your chest."
Fisher is a newcomer to the Oaks. He's back home for the summer after completing his first year playing baseball (and football) for Grinnell College in Iowa.
"Having Graham here is pretty special. It's good to have another true Palo Alto guy on the team," Navarro said. "We have a little more 'pop' in the lineup this year due to guys like Graham and some of the other players we've added."
"I'm primarily used as a pitcher in college . . . so it's nice to get to both hit and pitch here," added Fisher, whose teammates nicknamed him "Thor" for his power at the plate and his long blonde hair. "It's fun going out and playing America's pastime.
"This is a great organization. It gives quality semi-pro baseball to the people of Palo Alto. And, just giving opportunities to players like me and a bunch of other players who have graduated from college."
The Oaks' excellent regular-season record was no surprise to followers of the team, as the Oaks have built themselves into a dominating force in the Western Baseball Association. The Oaks have won eight of the past nine WBA championships, and won three consecutive AABC West Regional championships from 2010 to 2012.
Last season, the Oaks once again went to the championship game of the West Regional hosted in Sacramento, but lost to Easton Elite of Los Angeles in the finals.
With the tournament based in Palo Alto this weekend, the Oaks hope to use the familiar surroundings of their home field Baylands Athletic Center to their advantage.
"There is definitely extra incentive hosting the tournament," Navarro said. "When we host the tournament, we want to put on a show and win it. It's our home turf; we have to protect that."
The Oaks will be competing against four other teams from around California: the Easton Elite Dodgers and San Fernando Cardinals from Southern California, the Legends from the Sacramento area, and long-time rival Fontanetti's from San Jose.
The tournament consists of a double-elimination format with the championship game scheduled for Sunday at Baylands Athletic Center at 10 a.m. A challenge game, if needed, will be played at 2 p.m.
Much like previous Oaks squads that have had success in the tournament, the foundation for this year's team lies with its deep and talented pitching staff.
"You can never have enough arms," Matson said. "That's always a problem for teams, especially in tournaments like this."
Although the Oaks' rotation has not been set, Espinoza said that Brant Norlander and CJ Hillyer probably would be first in line to get starts, and mentioned Fisher and veteran Matt Campbell as other candidates to start a game in the tournament, as well. Navarro, meanwhile, is a solid arm out of the bullpen.
The Oaks have another incentive to bring home a regional championship this year, as Espinoza is retiring after 11 seasons running the Oaks.
"Steve's first year (as GM) was my first year. We've both grown together, learned the game and learned each other," Matson said. "It would be nice to take the West (title) and let Steve and some of the other veterans go out on a high note."
Another issue facing the Oaks is whether or not they would compete in the AABC World Series if they were to win the West Regional.
Last season the Oaks were planning to boycott the World Series if they made it, and the Oaks face similar financial troubles to fund a World Series trip this year.
Espinoza estimates it costs $6,000 a season to keep things running. The Oaks have to rent Baylands each weekend and the cost of umpires is $160 each game. Traveling is a whole different story with hotel and airfare costs. Espinoza said Easton Elite spent some $50,000 to attend last year's World Series in New York.
While Espinoza will be gone after this season, the fate of the team is still undecided.
For whatever lies ahead for the Oaks, Matson is proud of what the team accomplished over the past decade.
"Seeing how far the program has come from when we started and didn't even realize there was a tournament, to competing for the World Series every year, it's a good feeling," Matson said. "It's nice to have a team like Palo Alto where not a lot of people from outside the area even knew we had a competitive team, and to turn it into a perennial powerhouse . . . It's nice to set the goals that high."
The Oaks' first tournament game is against the Cardinals on Friday at Washington Park in Burlingame at 10 a.m. If they win that game, the Oaks would get an automatic bye to the third round on Saturday (4 p.m. at Baylands) due to the uneven number of teams entered in the tournament.
The championship game is Sunday at Baylands starting at 10 a.m. Should the undefeated team lose, a challenge game will follow at 2 p.m. At stake will be a trip to the AABC Stan Musial World Series from Aug. 6-10 in Farmingdale, N.Y.
For the Oaks, a regional title may be just as satisfying.
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