It felt like a championship game, which is to be expected almost on a daily basis in the West Catholic Athletic League.
After a pitchers’ duel between Serra and St. Francis on Tuesday afternoon in Mountain View nearly ended in a 1-0 shutout, each team managed clutch two-out at-bats during their turn at the plate in the seventh inning for a dramatic 2-1 outcome in walk-off fashion in favor of the host Lancers.
“Every year you get like two or three of these games — and you can count on that,” St. Francis catcher Cooper Foard said. “It’s just fun to catch, it’s fun to be back there. The atmosphere is amazing.”
Serra (9-5, 3-3 WCAL) was down to its last out in the top of the seventh, but No. 9 hitter Chris Fung managed to put himself in scoring position after being hit by a pitch and stealing second.
Fellow senior Jack Damelio proceeded to bring home the tying run with a RBI single to left field.
“You have to execute in situations against good teams,” said Serra coach Chris Houle, whose team stranded eight runners in the game. “We had a few chances and left some runners on. You have to take advantage of that in this league because the teams are so good.”
Oregon-bound catcher Cameron Barstad, who entered the game with a .457 average and hit a grand slam in the WCAL opener against Bellarmine — a 5-1 victory on March 17 — struck out for the third time to end the seventh-inning rally for the Padres.
“It was a tough game for him today, but he’s been great all year,” Houle said. “Obviously things get magnified in a big game. He struggled a little bit today, but he’ll bounce back.”
St. Francis (14-4, 4-2) seemed to catch a bad break when a ground-rule double with one out in the bottom of the seventh kept the speedy Maurice Wilmer from reaching third on a standup triple.
But after a fielder’s choice, pinch-hitter Elijah Ricks beat out an infield single up the middle with two outs as the rest of his teammates erupted out of the dugout.
“They’ve bought in to sort of what we’ve been talking about,” St. Francis coach Matt Maguire said. “How we need to play the game, playing hard, doing all the little things right — and hopefully that leads to wins. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. This could’ve gone either way.
“But I told them I’ll always be proud of them if they put that effort out there.”
Houle and Maguire are both first-year coaches at the varsity level, but this isn’t the first time they faced each other.
“I’ve played a lot of games here and coached a lot of games here,” Houle said.
“We actually coached JV against each other way back when,” Maguire said.
Both are teachers at their respective alma mater.
Houle (class of ’92) spent 12 years at the helm of the JV program at Serra, with Maguire (class of ’98) in the opposing dugout for the better part of a decade before taking a break from the game.
Several of their predecessors have made cameo appearances in the stands.
“To have the old school guys coming back to watch, it’s really cool to have that tradition,” Maguire said. “It’s part of something that is special here between the schools, it’s special in the league.”
Last year proved to be tumultuous for both schools, with interim coaches in the dugout by the end of the season.
St. Francis was knocked out in the opening round of the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs, while Serra finished as the runner-up.
“It’s a great group of kids to work with,” Houle said. “We’re a senior-heavy team, so there’s a great amount of leadership that those guys have brought to the season and it’s been fun to work alongside them as they kind of rally to try to get back to where they finished last year.
“They’re hungry to get back there.”
Tuesday afternoon served as a reminder of how tough it will be to achieve that goal.
The Padres looked poised to jump ahead in the top of the first after Damelio singled with one out and Barstad drew a walk.
Cleanup hitter Nick Lopez followed with a single and Damelio was waved home, only to be gunned down on a textbook relay throw by St. Francis second baseman Ryan Higgins.
“What I always say is if you step on the throat early in the game and quash the momentum to take it back on our side, then that’s the game right there,” said Foard, who applied the tag at the plate. “If they score right there, then they get the momentum and you never know what happens.”
Defense played a crucial role for the Lancers as sophomore Joey Schott, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound righty, continued to work his way out of trouble.
There was the double play to end the top of the third after a leadoff single, a diving catch by centerfielder Peter Halpin to open the fourth inning and a long scamper into the outfield by shortstop Izzy Galindo for the first out of the fifth.
“We’ve talked about that since Day 1,” Maguire said. “When we play good defense we’re going to be in games and then be a able to squeak something out at the end every once in a while.”
In the meantime, Serra senior Mitchell Scott, a 6-2, 195-pound righty, retired the first eight batters he faced and 14 out of 15 — half of them via strikeouts.
But a two-out rally in the bottom of the fifth broke a scoreless deadlock: walk, single, walk, single. The latter plated pinch-runner Maurice Wilmer after Halpin slapped a hit to left field with the bases juiced.
“They put the ball in play and made some things happen,” Houle said. “But both pitchers did a great job. Mitchell is outstanding.”
Scott tossed 6 2-3 innings, allowing five hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.
Schott was lifted after allowing a single and a walk with no outs in the top of the sixth, his afternoon over after four hits, six walks and three strikeouts.
A call to the bullpen by the Lancers brought in senior Jackson Yandle, who inherited two runners. One of them was wiped off the bases almost immediately when a botched attempt at a sacrifice bunt turned into a double play.
Foard instantly barehanded the ball out of midair and snapped a throw to second base for a double play.
“You can’t practice that,” Foard said. “There’s just kind of something that happens in the game, you don’t even think about it. I mean, it was kind of the perfect situation. It popped right in my hand and I was ready to throw.
“There’s no other way to describe it — it was just fun.”
It got stressful in the seventh inning, but St. Francis managed to extend their winning streak to eight games.
This includes last week’s title at its own Elite 8 Classic.
“This team, we’ve got all the momentum we need for the rest of the season right here,” Foard said. “We’ve been rolling for a while and this is a huge league win right here.”