Coach John De Visser has been a part of the Ripon Christian High School baseball program long enough to put Monday’s loss in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final in proper perspective.
The second-seeded Knights were defeated by Southern League rival Mariposa 11-7, losing their bid for the program’s first section championship.
But the tears De Visser fought back beneath a canopy of trees at Zupo Field weren’t borne of frustration or anger. They were part of the process, he said.
Sixteen years ago, De Visser – a Ripon Christian graduate, Class of 2000 – never dreamed of reaching a section final. As a player, winning league games was hard enough.
Today, De Visser believes the Southern League champions have a chance to become a major small-school power, and he thanked his senior class for pouring that foundation.
“This senior year group is right there, man,” De Visser said. “It’s maybe one of my favorite teams I’ve coached, and I’ve done this for 16 years now. I can’t physically take their uniforms and put it on my hanger yet. I need to process this. They need to process this. They did things, historically, that this team has never done.
“This is what happens in a one-day baseball thing,” he added. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. The finality of it is just gut-wrenching.”
Instead, Mariposa (18-7) continued its magical sports year. The Grizzlies have won a Stanislaus District-best five blue banners during the 2015-16 year, including championships in golf, wrestling, softball and boys basketball.
Davis of Yolo leads the section with seven banners, followed by Granite Bay, Vista del Lago and Mariposa.
That’s elite company.
“We’ve been known to be good in sports, but it seems like no one expects us to win sections,” senior Morgan Hughes said, clutching the banner in his right hand. “This year, we’ve been the most successful academic class and athletic class (in school history). It’s been crazy.”
The Grizzlies staved off a last-ditch rally by the Knights (23-6) and celebrated the program’s fifth title with a dog pile near the mound. Hughes was at the bottom of that tangle of arms and legs, adrenaline drowning out the pain coursing through his left knee. He strained his MCL during a collision at home plate in the semifinal series with Bradshaw Christian and needed a doctor’s clearance to play in Monday’s final.
With one leg, Hughes, dropped to seventh in the lineup and asked to DH for the first time all season, was still the best player on the diamond. He was 2 for 4 with four RBIs and sealed the win with a one-out save.
“He’s definitely been a gamer for us this year. … He wanted it,” coach Justin Kleinsmith said of Hughes’ emergency relief appearance. “He told me, ‘I’m ready, coach. Lefty on lefty.’ It was like he had already seen it happen in his dream or something.”
Hughes froze Connor McGovern with a breaking ball at the knees, leaving the bases loaded and Ripon Christian’s best hitters – Willem Hoekstra and Travis Vander Molen – in the dugout.
“I couldn’t run. I couldn’t play at first base; that’s where I normally play, and it was a little weird not being out there,” Hughes said. “But pitching is the one thing that didn’t hurt it, so I was glad I could come in and finish it.”
The Grizzlies threatened to make quick work of the Knights, scoring the first 10 runs.
Hughes highlighted Mariposa’s nine-run second inning with two run-scoring hits, including a three-run double. Hughes drove the ball into the left-center-field gap and off the tip of McGovern’s glove.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, on that double, I’d say (the pain) was at an 8,” Hughes said. “On everything else, I was taking it pretty easy.
“I put my heart into baseball and could not miss this game for the world. Even in a cast, I would have hid it underneath.”
Quinn Horvath drove in two runs with a single, Joseph Freitas laced an RBI single, Lucas Hart swiped home on a passed ball and Jake Williams scored on a bases-loaded walk as the Grizzlies chased Vander Molen after just 12 batters.
Williams made it 10-0 in the fourth after a leadoff single. He advanced to third on a fielding error and scored on another passed ball.
The Knights didn’t help their cause, issuing nine walks, committing three errors and beaning two batters.
“The game can speed up if you’re not careful,” De Visser said. “Once we settled in, we were good. It just took a little bit.”
Down to possibly its final three outs, Dominic Darretta and Travis Zuidervaart provided the spark in the bottom of the fifth inning. Darretta laced a single down the left-field line and stole second. He moved to third on Zuidervaart’s bunt single and scored on McGovern’s hit. Zuidervaart scored on a grounder by Vander Molen to cut the deficit to 10-2.
The Knights struck for five more in the seventh to introduce drama and suspense into a blowout.
Zuidervaart singled and scored when Michael Cummins’ grounder was misplayed. McGovern and Cummins scored on bases-loaded walks, and Michael Fisher had an RBI single. Darretta also drove in a run with a fielder’s choice.
“For four years, we’ve been talking about process, process, process,” De Visser said. “They never panicked. They just focused on process and kept putting tougher at-bats. … They slowed down and focused on the process, and they almost got there.”