Eagles rally to win SoCal Division III baseball championship

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Granite Hills High School teammates Austin Smith, left, and Spencer Davis display the Southern California regional championship trophy.

The 2020-21 interscholastic season finally wrapped up last Saturday with Southern California regional championship games in both baseball and softball.

Four San Diego Section teams qualified for championship games in baseball while one did so in softball.

In the first year of the regional playoffs, section teams did exceedingly well as three of the four teams in the baseball finals won regional championships.

Top-seeded Granite Hills, the newly crowned Division I section champion, employed a late rally to defeat Riverside Arlington, 6-5, to capture the Division III regional title while Division IV section champion West Hills defeated Fresno Washington Union, 9-5, to win the Division V-A championship.

La Costa Canyon defeated Long Beach Millikan, 1-0, in a nine-inning Division II regional matchup while reigning Division III section champion Christian came up on the short end of a 4-2 score in the Division V regional final.

“It’s late in the year,” expressed 20-year veteran Granite Hills head coach James Davis. “It’s been a long season. With the section and regional playoffs, we played 38 games. But it was fun. It’s always fun when you win.”

Last Saturday’s come-from-behind win allowed the Eagles (28-10) to tie a school record with their 28 wins.

“We’re a power-hitting team,” Davis said. “I knew they were short on pitching. We had to stay disciplined. I knew that if we could stay close that we had a chance.”

That’s exactly what happened.

Sophomore Andrew Rudd started on the mound for the Lions. He pitched the opening three frames and generally kept the Eagles off balance while getting the big outs when he needed them.

Granite Hills advanced a runner as far as third base with one down in the bottom of the first inning but Rudd induced two ground-outs to end the inning without surrendering a run.

The Eagles placed two runners on base in the bottom of the second inning but Rudd once again managed to get out of a jam with a groundout.

Rudd set down the Eagles in order in the bottom of the third inning.

The game was scoreless through the opening two frames as Granite Hills senior Noa Ponciano retired the first six batters he faced.

However, junior Ryan Cole cleared the right field fence with one out in the top of the third inning for a two-run home run to open scoring in the game. The Lions would push across two more runs before the inning was over to take a 4-0 lead.

Following Cole’s homer, sophomore Jayden Sanchez and junior Austin Mojarro followed with singles while sophomore Jack Kleveno was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Junior Jake Khasaempanth followed with a basehit to score two runs.

Arlington (23-13) tacked on another run in the top of the fourth inning on a two-out RBI single by sophomore Kael Corridan.

Granite Hills got one run back in the bottom of the fourth inning on a solo home run by junior Tanner Vielguth off Cole, who had entered the game in relief of Rudd.

As it turned out, the Lions’ relief corps was unable to protect a 5-0 lead.

Ponciano settled down and allowed just one hit in the fifth and sixth innings.

The Eagles needed just one more inning to complete their somewhat improbable comeback.

Trailing 5-1 entering the bottom of the sixth inning, the hosts sent nine men to the plate while scoring six runs with two out.

Sophomore Camden Sos started the rally with a one-out basehit. Vielguth, the next batter, struck out but junior Cody Macias followed with a double to place runners at first and second bases with two out.

The bases were soon loaded when junior Alex Gibaud was hit by a pitch.

Senior Joe Alegre took over on the mound for the Riverside team at this point. His duty on the mound was short-lived.

Alegre hit the first batter he faced, junior James Taylor, to bring in one run to narrow the Granite Hills deficit to 5-2.

The bases remained loaded for senior Austin Smith, who promptly smashed a two-run double to narrow the score further to 5-4.

“I got hold of a change-up,” Smith said. “I put it in the right spot.”

Runners remained in scoring position for the next Eagle at the plate, junior Spencer Davis, who promptly singled to score two more runners.

Photo by Phillip Brents
The Granite Hills High School baseball team celebrates its history-making Southern California regional Division III championship after rallying for a dramatic 6-5 win last Saturday over Riverside Arlington.

6-5 Granite Hills.

Smith relieved Ponciano to pitch the top of the seventh inning and the lefty delivered just what was needed: three outs.

Smith caught Cole and Sanchez swinging for consecutive strikeouts to open the frame. Junior Austin Mojarro slapped a hard ball at shortstop but Sos fielded it cleanly and threw to Vielguth at first base for the final out of the season — and the regional championship game victory.

“Coach Davis told me I was going in the seventh inning no matter what,” said Smith, who is headed to play collegiate baseball at UC San Diego. “I knew I had to get three outs.”

“I can’t say that I’ve gotten a bigger hit,” Davis said of his game-winning single.

“It’s crazy playing high school baseball in almost July. We’re done … done.”

Ponciano (six strikeouts) received credit for the win to improve to 9-4 on the season.

Granite Hills finished postseason play 8-1 — 5-1 in the section finals and 3-0 in regional competition.

The Eagles faced elimination three times in the section playoffs before preserving to advance to the championship game and then overcoming an early 2-0 in the Division I final before prevailing 3-2.

Granite Hills finished its championship season with a seven-game winning streak.

“We had some rocky games but over the course of the season we came together as a team and believed in each other,” said Smith, who earned the save in last Saturday’s regional final. “That’s why we’re Division I and SoCal champions.”

Batter up

The top-seeded Eagles faced fourth-seeded Westview three times in the double-elimination section tournament. Westview won the first meeting, 6-5, to drop Granite Hills one loss from elimination. But the Eagles rallied with 5-4 and 12-7 victories to advance to the section final.

Junior Grant MacArthur drove in three runs in the 5-4 win over the Wolverines with a home run while Smith had two hits, including a double, to plate three runs in the knockout win over Westview. Smith also picked up the win with a complete game effort to land his team in the division championship game.

The Eagles soared over their opening two opponents in the regionals, defeating eighth-seeded Lake Balboa Birmingham, 6-2, in the quarterfinals on June 22 and fourth-seeded Reseda Cleveland, 13-3, in the semifinals on June 24.

The Eagles blasted 15 hits in the run-rule shortened semifinal win over the Los Angeles Section Open Division champions.

Smith collected three RBI and scored three times. He blasted a home run to lead off the first inning for the Eagles and later added a double.

Vielguth led Granite Hills with five RBI in the game, including a three-run home run.

Ethan McNish-Heider had two hits, drove in two runs and scored three times while Sos, Macias and Gibaud also drove in runs.

Freshman Chandler Henry allowed one earned run in four innings as the starting pitcher for the Eagles.

Gibaud had two RBI in the quarterfinal win over Birmingham from the San Fernando Valley. MacArthur doubled to score one run while Gibaud also had a double in the game. Andrew Stinnett struck out 10 batters in five innings to earn the pitching victory.

Arlington jump-started the regional playoffs with a 7-0 win over seventh-seeded Point Loma, the Division I section runner-up.

The Lions then shut out sixth-seeded Newhall Hart, 1-0, in the semifinals.

Softball

Four teams from the section elected to participate in the SoCal regional playoffs: Carlsbad (third in the Open Division), Holtville (Division IV champion), Kearny (Division V champion) and Bayfront Charter (Division IV runner-up).

Top-seeded Holtville (21-5) placed second in the Division IV regional final following a 4-3 loss to third-seeded Highland, Holtville defeated fourth-seeded Kearny, 14-4, in the division semifinals after Kearny (21-5) had eliminated fifth-seeded Bayfront Charter, 8-7, in the quarterfinals.

Holtville had defeated Bayfront Charter (26-5) by a score of 13-7 in the section division championship game.

Third-seeded Carlsbad (17-7) lost, 3-1, to sixth-seeded Westlake in the Division I regional quarterfinals.

Eagles rally to win SoCal Division III baseball championship