One Modesto Metro Conference baseball team snapped a playoff drought Friday, and Downey High coach Justin Schwitters didn’t mind delaying the celebration a few seconds more.
With his team huddled together following a 4-0 victory over Davis in their regular-season finale, Schwitters slow-played the good news: Across town, Beyer completed its sweep of Modesto, punching the Knights’ playoff ticket for the first time in six years.
“We kept it a secret. We didn’t say anything until the game was over,” Schwitters said. “We held them in suspense. We told them, ‘Good game. Oh, and by the way …’ Everyone was pretty excited. The playoffs aren’t something Downey baseball is used to going to. We won’t take this opportunity for granted.”
Going into the final day of the MMC, Downey’s hopes were pinned to scenarios.
The Panthers (12-15) held the advantage, needing only a win against two-time defending champion Beyer to clinch the program’s first postseason berth in 17 years and first under coach Daryl Galloway.
Instead, Modesto closed a promising season with a four-game losing streak, swinging the door open for hard-charging Downey.
Officially, Downey (11-16) and Modesto finished tied for third at 9-9, but the Knights advance on the tiebreaker. Once 1-10 and 0-6 in conference play, the Knights won their final four series, including head-to-head matchups with Modesto and Enochs.
“Our kids, they’re just playing good baseball,” Schwitters said. “At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for. I think the biggest thing is that we’ve learned to play for each other instead of as individuals. As a group, we’ve gone together.
“Since we’re 16 or 17 players deep, we feel pretty good about our chances.”
Downey’s depth has shined this week in a pivotal sweep of Davis, the second-worst team in the conference.
Brett Neves pitched nine shutout innings in two starts, including a complete-game one-hitter on Friday.
Braden Plaa provided the insurance with a two-run double in the seventh inning. Aaric Holt and Zac Cooper scored on the extra-base hit.
Tyler Foote was 2 for 3, Zach Cruz stole two bases and Holt drove in a run for the Knights, who have won 10 of their last 16 games.
Neves has been virtually unhittable in his last five starts, all victories. He has allowed one earned run in 30 innings, collecting wins against Enochs, Modesto, Templeton and two against Davis.
A two-sport athlete, Neves, an all-league quarterback in the fall, has always been blessed with the physical tools. This spring, though, Schwitters has watched Neves elevate his game.
Schwitters says Neves has matured, mentally and emotionally, into the ultimate leader.
“He’s been balling on the mound. He brings that confidence when he’s on the mound and our team feels like that can beat anybody,” Schwitters said. “It’s been fun to watch.
“He’s grown as a leader. It has to be about more than one person and someone has to take that responsibility. As coaches, we do the best we can, but the leadership from the kids is hugely important.”
The MMC will send three to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I South tournament, headlined by its champion: Gregori (26-0, 18-0), the only unbeaten team in the section. The Jaguars completed their banner season with a 10-0 victory over Enochs (12-15, 8-10), which lost 10 of its last 12 games to fall out of the race.
Gregori is ranked No. 9 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, the highest of any team in the section, and will have a first-round bye.
Beyer (18-9, 15-3) will be the No. 2 playoff seed when the tournament gets underway Monday, May 15, at home sites.
“I think the league was actually a lot of better than we get credit for,” Schwitters said. “As a league, I hope we can go out and represent (the city of) Modesto. There is good baseball here.”
Downey will likely open on the road, but with Neves and all this wind in its sails, Schwitters believes anything is possible.
“We know the top seeds are the top seeds for a reason, but we’re at a point where we’re playing really clean baseball,” he said. “We’re just happy to have another chance to play a clean game.”