One by one, Gregori High’s nine seniors made their way through the handshake line, stopping to embrace the players and coaches … stopping to pass the torch.
All of that experience produced the greatest campaign in program history. The Jaguars reached the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I South Tournament, but would get no closer to a coveted section banner.
St. Mary’s, the perennial South champion and a four-time section king, capitalized on early mistakes and then jumped Gregori once more in the seventh inning en route to an 8-1 victory at the University of the Pacific’s Klein Family Field.
Seemingly penciled into the South final each season, the third-seeded Rams (20-10) will face No. 1 Tracy (24-4) on Friday at Pacific. St. Mary’s needs to beat the Bulldogs, the reigning South champions, twice to advance to the section final for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
First pitch is 4 p.m.
“Hats off to St. Mary’s,” Gregori coach Jim Davis said. “What a well-coached, outstanding program. Best of luck to them against Tracy, but our kids wanted to win this game. They came in with that mentality.
“This is the finality of the season; it’s over. Now, we say goodbye to the seniors and welcome in the new group. Here come the sophomores, and we start in a week with summer ball. It’s the finality that hurts. This was tough. There were a lot of tears, a lot of emotions. It’s just over.”
Gregori (28-3) was hunting its first appearance in the South final.
Instead, the season ended on a sad note for the Modesto Metro Conference champions. After a lengthy postgame talk, Davis found space along the left-field foul line, took a few deep breaths and wiped a “bug” or two off his cheek.
Davis and predecessor Rob Steves built this barnstorming bunch from the ground up, developing a deep stable of college-caliber pitchers, an electric offense, and a family atmosphere.
Gregori responded with a program record 28 wins, including 26 in a row to start the season. The Jaguars won their first outright league title, distancing themselves from two-time defending champion Beyer, Downey, Modesto and Enochs, and dominated the field at Oakdale High’s Mark Dickens Memorial Invitational.
History followed Gregori through the postseason.
The Jaguars were made the No. 2 seed and received an automatic pass to Pacific, and then Gregori whipped St. Mary’s on Monday to reach the semifinal round in the winner’s bracket.
If not for a balk in the eighth inning on Wednesday, Gregori – not Tracy – would be waiting in the South final.
“The run we made … we had just an incredible season. Thirteen teams started this thing,” Davis said of the Division I South Tournament, “and after tonight there are only two left.”
The Rams’ championship pedigree shined in the early stages of Thursday’s game. St. Mary’s jumped on senior starter A.J. MacCaughtry for six runs in three innings. MacCaughtry wasn’t helped by his defense. Gregori committed four errors, including three in the first three frames.
“We would have liked to have a do-over on the first two innings,” Davis said. “Just the first two.”
Ryan Quijalvo led the Rams’ charge, going 3-for-3 with a pair of RBI singles. Christian Almanza chased MacCaughtry with an RBI double off the wall in left field. Almanza and Ramil Pinzon had two hits apiece, and Jordan Hernandez also drove in two runs for St. Mary’s, which iced the win with two runs in the seventh.
The Jaguars weren’t without opportunity.
They just lacked the timely hit.
Gregori had runners on base in each of the first five innings, but didn’t produce its first base hit until the fourth. One of the section’s top offensive teams all season, with an average north of .400, the Jaguars stranded seven baserunners and hit just 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
Chandler Sanguinetti picked up his second playoff win against a Stanislaus District champion. He extinguished Turlock last week, and then worked around errors in six shut-down innings against the Jaguars.
“He didn’t have a ton of velocity, but he painted. He worked out of the bottom of the strike zone and did a great job of keeping our kids off-balanced,” Davis said. “You’re seeing top-level pitching.”
Senior Zach McCoy doubled home the Jaguars’ only run. Nick Urrutia led off the fifth with a bunt single and then scored from first on McCoy’s extra-base hit over the third-base bag.
Two nights after logging 10 strikeouts in a no-decision, Matt Dallas, starting at catcher, singled, walked on four pitches in the fifth, and threw out two baserunners in his final high school game.
Wade Brenneke made a rare relief appearance, but showed no signs of rust. Brenneke logged 3-plus innings of scoreless relief, striking out five with a looping curve and sneaky fastball.
“Hats off to Wade Brenneke,” Davis said. “The kid has thrown six innings and he came in and threw 3 ⅔ innings of scoreless relief. He gave us an opportunity to at least give ourselves a chance to get back into it.”