The Sac-Joaquin Section won’t announce the brackets for the baseball playoffs until Thursday, but already there’s a spirited debate taking shape on social media.
The Division I tournament has long been the crowning jewel of the section’s seven divisions, and only twice in more than 30 years has the crown been worn by a team from the Stanislaus District.
Just twice: Merced in 1978 and 2002.
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In fact, eight years have passed since a Stanislaus District team last appeared in the final. Outfitted with three Division I pitchers, Buhach Colony broke through in 2008.
Since then, seat has been kept warm by the Tri-City Athletic League, and quite often that team has been St. Mary’s, a private school power with four section titles. Last season, Tracy emerged from a South bracket that included St. Mary’s, Beyer, Turlock, Bear Creek and Buhach Colony. The Bulldogs were eventually beaten by Elk Grove in a three-game series, but the tone was set for 2017.
By all accounts, this is supposed to be the Year of the Bulldog, and in the TCAL, it has. Tracy has clinched at least share of the title with two games remaining, both against last-place West (Tuesday and Wednesday).
The Bulldogs are The Stockton Record’s top-ranked team and have navigated a rugged schedule, which includes wins over Granada of Livermore, Maria Carrillo of Santa Rosa and St. Mary’s.
Yet, they’ve been leapfrogged in every ranking of note by Gregori, the only unbeaten team in the section.
Going into Wednesday’s season finale at Bear Creek, the Jaguars have rattled off 26 consecutive wins. They’re the only team (No. 9) in the section ranked in the state’s top-10, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
Tracy? Sifting ... sifting ... sifting ... Oh, there they are – “team on the bubble.”
So who deserves to be No. 1 when the brackets roll out?
Gregori, and I’ll tell you why.
Merit: The Jaguars have won a championship at every turn. They swept the Mark Dickens Memorial Invitational, beating Lodi, Escalon and Central Catholic, and ran right through the Modesto Metro Conference. The MMC is a top-heavy conference, unlike the TCAL. Tracy’s five conference opponents boast a better average MaxPreps state ranking (380 to 674) and overall record (53-66 to 62-99).
Still, Gregori shouldn’t be punished for beating the cupcakes put in its way. Every league has a cupcake or two. Instead, the Jaguars should be celebrated for the quality of their wins against the MMC’s best: Beyer, Downey, Modesto and Enochs. Gregori was 12-0 against those teams with an average margin of victory of eight runs.
Strength of schedule: The prevailing argument amongst the pro-Tracy crowd is that Gregori hasn’t played anyone. That slight has more to do with the MMC than coach Jim Davis’ ability to put together a non-conference schedule.
A baseball lifer with connections to all the best minds in the Central Valley, Davis has pit his team against the area’s big dogs: Turlock and Pitman of the Central California Conference; Oakdale and Sierra of the Valley Oak League; Escalon of the Trans-Valley League; and Bear Creek of the San Joaquin Athletic Association.
The microscope strengthens ...
Gregori’s opposition actually have a better winning percentage than Tracy’s, even with Davis (4-23) and Johansen (5-21) weighing them down: .530 to .498. The Jaguars have played more teams with a winning record (eight to six), and their non-conference strength of schedule is actually tougher by MaxPreps’ metrics. Tracy’s non-conference opponents have an average state ranking of 379, while Gregori’s check in at 258.
Tangibles: The Jaguars lead the section in hits and boast a deep starting rotation. The staff features three seven-game winners, including seniors Matt Dallas (8-0, 0.69 ERA) and A.J. MacCaughtry (9-0, 0.86) and junior transfer Julian Favela (7-0, 0.15). Third baseman Brandon Pasion (1-0, 0.55) can also start. The junior went 5-4 in 2016. Eight players have committed with a two- or four-year college and a ninth is torn between options. Based on this kind of depth and volume of talent, Gregori isn’t just the best team in the district today, but in recent memory.
Intangibles: Gregori feels like a section championship team. Granted, the section seeding committee has no way of measuring “feel,” but for the purpose of this column, I will. Any reporter that has spent a considerable amount of time around championship-caliber teams can vouch for the power of chemistry and bond, a team’s cool under pressure, and their emotional balance. Two years, the Central Catholic football team built a VOL, section and CIF State champion on the principles of sacrifice, selflessness and work rate. They trumpeted the “We” philosophy. Gregori has many of those same characteristics: a deep senior class devoid of attention-seeking stars, juniors who have embraced every challenge, and a coaching that keeps them chasing the carrot. They do everything together, whether it’s demolishing the opposition or a lunchtime pizza.