High School Sports

Manteca shakes off struggles to win second section baseball title in 3 years

Manteca overcomes its struggles to win Division III title

Manteca rallied for a 9-6 victory over Christian Brothers in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final on Monday, May 30, 2016, at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi.
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Manteca rallied for a 9-6 victory over Christian Brothers in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final on Monday, May 30, 2016, at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi.

Zach Chamberlain ripped the mitt off his hand and dropped into a squat near third base.

The Manteca High School third baseman was perplexed by his cross-diamond throw in the fourth inning Monday night, and the sophomore suddenly found himself fighting a battle on the field and between his ears.

The ball sailed from his hand and crashed into the cyclone fence, allowing Christian Brothers to steal the momentum in their Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final.

Chamberlain’s frustration would end one of two ways: It could consume him, eroding at this experience and the Buffaloes’ chances of winning, or he could fight back with his stick.

He chose the latter, delivering the winning hit in the Buffaloes’ come-from-behind 9-6 victory at Tony Zupo Field.

“All the stuff going through my head – error after error,” said Chamberlain, who was 2 for 4. “I had to pick my team up, and it happened. I made contact with the ball; that’s all I was trying to do.

“It feels like the World Series right now,” he added. “I don’t think it’s set in yet, but it’s crazy.”

Trailing 6-5 in the fifth, Chamberlain bounced a two-run single into right field as Manteca (23-7) rallied for its second section title in three seasons.

In 2014, the Buffaloes, armed with two of the top pitchers in Northern California – Jacob Corn, then a prized recruit for Oregon, and section wins leader Lucas Vaughn – were a chic pick to win it all.

This time, coach Neil MacDannald was sure of only one thing: His youth-laden roster would compete … but for what?

“Last time, it was pretty much the expectation because we had a lot of returners and talent on that team,” MacDannald said. “The difference about this team, what percentage of the people out there thought we’d win our own league, let alone accomplish this? It’s a testament to the guys in the dugout. They’re a phenomenal group that I’ve been lucky to coach.

“They all come to work every day without exception. Not once have we had to coach effort.”

Chamberlain wasn’t the only Buffalo presented with an opportunity for redemption.

Tyler Graves-Kelso endured one of his roughest starts of the season. The senior right-hander was pulled in the fourth after giving up six runs and seven hits.

Devin Sullivan went the rest of the way, earning the victory by keeping his ball – and his heart rate – low. He retired the first seven batters he faced and struck out four, including three straight.

“Whenever we’ve had to call upon him, he’s gone out there and got outs,” MacDannald said. “He goes about his business; kind of a quiet guy, but he throws a heavy ball. Hey, he got the win in the section championship game.”

Christian Brothers (24-6-1) brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh after back-to-back singles, but Sullivan got Tyler Stewart and Jeremy Wackman, the Nos. 3-4 hitters, to pop out to clinch MacDannald’s 100th career victory.

“I just came in and threw. … That’s what I do,” Sullivan said. “I felt the pressure – all of it. Bottom of the seventh. Two outs. Runners on first and second. I’m wondering if I’m going to give it up, but I came through.”

Graves-Kelso didn’t factor in the decision in his final high school start, but he helped provide the margin of victory. Like Chamberlain, Graves-Kelso found other ways to contribute. He drove a two-run double the opposite way in the sixth, scoring Mitch Balmut (single) and Ronaldo Tijero (single) to make it 9-6.

Graves-Kelso reached base in all four plate appearances and scored twice. He wore a bulky brace under his pants, which helped hold his right knee together. Graves-Kelso tore his ACL during basketball season and opted not to have surgery for this very reason.

“I needed to relax and swing the bat,” he said. “(Tanner Cunha) had a little bit of a tail” on his fastball “and he threw one that tailed back over the plate and I hit it the opposite way. I was looking for a pitch to hit and I got it.”

Manteca finished with 14 hits against Ceto Munoz and Cunha, Christian Brothers’ “co-aces,” as Falcons coach Rich Henning described them before the game. The Buffaloes greeted Cunha with three runs in the fifth and two in the sixth.

Tijero got the ball rolling with an RBI triple in the first inning. Sophomore Kyle Rachels (3 for 4) kept the line moving with an RBI double off the top of the wall in left as Manteca jumped on top 2-0.

Rachels sparked a two-run fourth with a single. He advanced to third on an error and a passed ball, then raced home on another passed ball. Sam Rohovit’s bunt single moments later made it 4-1.

Christian Brothers finally found its footing with a five-run fourth. The Falcons chased Graves-Kelso with three consecutive run-scoring hits, including a two-run single by No. 9 hitter Michael Ingram.

The inning began with Chamberlain’s throwing error and finished with Graves-Kelso in line for the loss, and both were the picture of frustration at opposite corners of the infield.

Chamberlain shook his head, trying to ward off the negative thoughts that were circling like vultures since pregame. Graves-Kelso grabbed a first baseman’s mitt and scowled at the scoreboard as Sullivan warmed up.

Neither stayed down for long.

“This game is a microcosm of our season a little bit,” MacDannald said. “We made a few youthful mistakes, but we were able to keep our head up and make a play later to make up for it.”

James Burns: 209-578-2150, @jburns1980