Menlo head coach Craig Schoof, however, couldn't call on senior Dylan Mayer for a big hit because Mayer was sidelined with a broken ankle. And when Schoof needed senior Freddy Avis to pitch in the most critical moment of the season, Avis was sidelined by illness and tightness in his right arm.
What it all added up to was a season of high expectations ending in a frustrating 10-6 loss to Pacific Grove in the Central Coast Section Division III championship game last Saturday at San Jose Municipal Stadium.
There was no three-peat for the Knights and no dogpile to participate in at the end of the game. And, while a CCS trophy is always nice for the trophy case, the award wasn't the one Schoof and his team wanted.
Still, said Schoof, "that doesn't diminish what we accomplished."
Menlo won the West Bay Athletic League title, earned a No. 2 seed for the section playoffs, compiled a 22-8 record, and had to juggle its lineup to the point of having its starting catcher moving to the mound — and still nearly pulled off the first three-peat in program history.
"In all honesty this is the most proud I've ever been of a team," said Schoof. "To go through all that adversity and all the expectations — it's tough."
The toughest part was having top-seeded Palma knocked out of the tournament in the first round and having a path cleared to a possible sixth CCS title.
"Just to get to three CCS championships is an accomplishment in itself," said Menlo starting pitcher Jake Batchelder.
Pacific Grove came into the title game with the No. 9 seed, but left with the championship trophy and its third CCS title — the first since 1999 — to cap a 20-10 season.
The Knights' bats looked solid in the first inning when Avis belted a triple over the out-stretched arm of the Pacific Grove right fielder. Avis later scored on a bases-loaded walk by Will King. A sacrifice fly by Austin Marcus made it 2-0 after the first inning.
The Knights looked in control in the third after scoring two more runs on an RBI double by Marcus and and RBI single by Sam Crowder.
Momentum, however, swung in the other direction for Menlo in the bottom of the fourth inning when Pacific Grove scored six runs on three hits and two walks. The Breakers got a break when, with two outs, Menlo shortstop Mikey Diekroeger couldn't come up with a slow roller for the final out. Pacific Grove took advantage as the next five hitters reached base safely and PG grabbed a 6-4 lead.
Menlo responded to the deficit when Avis led off the fourth with a towering home run over the right-field fence for a 6-5 game.
Avis just missed hitting a homer in the second, but the fly ball drifted down the right-field line and landed foul in the bullpen. Avis wound up striking out.
Menlo tied the game at 6 in the fifth inning on a walk to Marcus, a bloop single to right by senior Carson Badger and a fielder's choice by Graham Stratford, which scored Marcus.
Despite getting back in the game, the momentum shift for Menlo was short-lived after Batchelder had to leave the game — reaching his five-inning limit after pitching five frames in an 8-2 semifinal win over Monte Vista Christian in the semifinals.
Schoof, however, couldn't bring in Avis to close out the Breakers. Avis, who couldn't pitch in the semifinals due to illness and tightness in his throwing arm, was still unavailable for anything but DH duty. Projected as a possible high pick in the upcoming MLB draft or destined for a solid career at Stanford, it was too much for Schoof to risk by having Avis throw.
Instead, Schoof brought in Marcus, his junior starting catcher. While Marcus had thrown a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in the quarterfinals, he had limited pitching experience. And this, after all, was the biggest game of his career.
Marcus started the sixth and gave up a leadoff single. It got worse for Marcus after that with a stolen base, some walks and a sacrifice fly that gave Pacific Grove an 8-6 lead.
Menlo tried to bounce back in the bottom of the sixth when senior Chris Zeisler walked with one out. On a grounder by Batchelder, however, Zeisler was called for obstruction as he slid into second base. Batchelder also was called out on the play, ending a potential threat. Schoof came out to protest, but to no avail.
Marcus continued to struggle with his control in the seventh, loading the bases. A walk and another balk call made it 10-6 and Menlo's dream was over.
It was a tough finish for the Knights, who started four sophomores on Saturday — Diekroeger, Stratford, King and Crowder.
Not having Avis available to pitch also was crucial. The Stanford-bound senior, who throws his fastball in the 90-94 mph range, had been the winning pitcher in Menlo's past two championship games and could have been again had he been available.
He departs along with Zeisler, Badger, Julian Ryles, Marc Adler, Batchelder and Mayer. The seniors helped compile a four-year record of 98-26, four straight appearances in the CCS playoffs, two titles and one second-place finish.
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