The University of the Pacific’s Klein Family Field is a picturesque ball park carved into the western edge of campus.
It’s become a preferred destination for the Sac-Joaquin Section’s Division I baseball teams, and an invitation identifies your club as one of the elite eight.
Of those eight, the Central California Conference had three on the guest list: No. 6 Turlock (18-7) tangled with perennial contender No. 3 St. Mary’s (17-9) on Wednesday, while No. 5 Pitman (18-9) and No. 9 El Capitan (14-12) will look to extend their seasons Thursday.
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“It’s very special. The energy level and everything goes up another couple of notches. It’s fun for the seniors to be able to go out in that fashion, and for our younger guys that haven’t got to experience to do so,” said Pitman coach John Acha, whose program returns to Pacific after a one-year hiatus.
“It’s a great field. Great environment. Everyone is excited. In high school baseball, it signifies the strength of a program. For this team, it signifies resiliency and hard work. We had to grind it out, mentally. This is our goal every year. We want to get to UOP, so it’s nice to reach your goals.”
The Pride, a co-champion in the CCC along with city rival Turlock, will play Bear Creek (20-8). The Bruins were awarded a No. 4 seed after winning the San Joaquin Athletic Association and run-ruling No. 2 and previously unbeaten Gregori in their regular-season finale.
Bear Creek dispatched Downey in their first round game, 10-4.
“We expect it to be a good game, where you can’t make mistakes because they’ll capitalize on them,” Acha said. “We have to limit the mistakes and number of free bases. If we throw strikes and put ball in play, we’ll let the chips fall where they may. When we play our game – and we play a complete game – I know we can compete with anybody.”
El Capitan earned its place atop Thursday’s marquee with top-seeded Tracy (21-4) following an impressive 2-1 victory at Beyer High Monday.
Right-handed Sai Davuluri was brilliant, striking out in a complete-game three-hitter. The Dartmouth-bound senior walked just one, adding to the drama in the seventh inning, but finished the gem with a strikeout and game-ending line drive.
After a turbulent move to the CCC, the Gauchos, a former Division V finalist, join Turlock and Pitman on the section’s biggest stage.
“This season and most, it’s always been a well-recognized conference, a strong conference,” Acha said. “Over the years, there’s been a lot of tradition. It’s a well-balanced league. … It prepares you for playoffs.”
Each team’s journey to Stockton is different, symbolizing the balance that exists in the state’s second-largest section. There are favorites, such as reigning South champion Tracy and Bear Creek, and Cinderella stories, like El Capitan. And then there are the darkhorses, teams like Pitman, a program peaking at just the right time.
The Pride have won six of their last seven games, and eight of 10, including a sweep of Turlock last week to steal a share of the CCC. Pitman outscored the Bulldogs 9-4 in the series, and then rolled that momentum into a 5-1 victory over Franklin in Monday’s playoff opener.
Senior Jack Wheeland went the distance, allowing one hit with nine strikeouts. He was backed by a balanced offense.
Sophomore Mac Cabrero had a team-best two hits, freshman Cole Carrigg tripled and senior Anthony Encalade doubled. Senior Nick Jones also drove in two runs for the Pride, who padded the win with two runs in the first and sixth innings.
“Jack did what he needed to do. He struggled to find the zone in the first inning, but dialed it in,” Acha said. “I think we missed some opportunities and could have done a better job in situational hitting. If we’re going to move on, we’re going to have to improve on our timely hitting and stay within ourselves.”
Junior Brett Hagen (3-1) will start against Bear Creek
Amid all the Pride’s pitching options, Acha believes Hagen has the most to prove. He received a no-decision in a first round loss to McNair last spring. He gave up three runs on five hits and three walks in five innings.
“He’s been there before,” Acha said. “Last year, he pitched against McNair and didn’t do bad. I think he has the fight in him to get redemption.”