COSTA MESA -- The Orange Coast College baseball team will head up to Fresno and take on Sacramento City College in the opening game of the California Community College Athletic Association Baseball State Championships on Saturday, beginning at 12 p.m. at Fresno City College's John Euless Ballpark.
"I'm so happy these guys get to experience what the State Final Four is all about," OCC head coach John Altobelli said. "They've worked so hard this season and for our sophomores ... to get so close last year and not make it ... they deserve this opportunity."
The Pirates (33-13), seeded No. 1 out of Southern California, will be the "home" team against Northern California's second-seeded Panthers (33-14) in the opening game of this weekend's four-team, double-elimination tournament. In the nightcap, NorCal's top-seed, San Joaquin Delta (40-8) will take on the South's No. 2 seed, Mt. San Antonio (35-12). The loser of these two games will square off in an elimination game on Sunday at 10 a.m., while the winners face off in the state semifinals at 2 p.m. (FULL BRACKET).
While there is a full weekend of baseball set for all four teams involved in this year's Final Four, one thing is certain: Winning on Saturday goes a LONG way towards achieving the goal of state champion.
In fact, since 2005, only one team has ever lost on Saturday and won the state championship (Sierra College in 2005), so Altobelli knows the importance of getting off to a good start.
"You're still in it, whether you win or lose on Saturday ... but it sure does help," Altobelli said. "Especially in Fresno, where the weather can be hot and muggy ... the quicker you can win and get back to the hotel, the better."
OCC's road to Fresno looked like it was a dead end early on in the 2018 season as injuries and sluggish play put the Pirates at 8-7 through the early portion of the season. A four-game winning streak to kick off Orange Empire Conference play was followed up with three straight losses, including a 12-2 debacle at Golden West, leaving the Pirates with more questions than answers.
But with the February return of Cameron Jabara (8-0, 3.86 ERA) and the March return of reliever Gus Culpo (3-0, two saves, 2.86 ERA), the Pirates suddenly looked like the contender many had predicted at the beginning of the season.
"We were kind of treading water until our pitching could get healthy again and it was around that time, we were able to do just that," Altobelli said. "Getting guys like Cameron and Gus back helped not only solidify our starters, but it helped define players' roles in our bullpen as well and from there, we've been a much better team."
How much better have the Pirates been? Since that 12-2 loss to GWC, Coast has gone 21-3 over its final 24 games, en route to back-to-back OEC championships for the first time in 30 years.
The OCC offense has been a steady diet of tough outs for the opposing pitchers, with freshman Skylar Limonchi (.313, 55 hits, 39 runs, 12 stolen bases) and sophomore Coby Kauhaahaa (.318, 42 hits, 22 runs 18 RBI) setting the table, while sophomore sluggers Chris Ceballos (.307, 47 hits, three HR, 27 RBI), Domenic Donato (.294, 47 hits, 13 doubles, 29 RBI), Ramiro Velasco (.315, 46 hits, six HR, 37 RBI) and Jacob Doty (.306, four HR, 22 RBI) have been driving in the runs.
Freshmen Murphy Stehly (.331, 39 hits, 26 runs, 25 RBI) and Joey Fregosi (.265, 22 hits, 16 runs) and sophomore Landon Silver (.288, 34 hits, 10 doubles, 13 RBI) have provided depth to the batting order for the Pirates, who come into this weekend's Final Four with a .295 team batting average.
Michael Giacone has been the workhorse of the Pirate starters, going 6-2 with a 2.00 ERA, leading the Pirates in innings pitched (76 1/3 and strikeouts (87). Giacone and Jabara have been the 1-2 pitch atop the rotation that has helped the Pirates sweep past Cuesta (4-3, 5-3), Riverside (2-1, 11-6) and El Camino (9-0, 7-4) in this year's Southern California Regional playoffs.
Other standout pitchers for the Pirates include sophomores Doug Magee (4-1, four saves, 3.54 ERA) and Josh Berman (2-2, five saves, 4.33 ERA), but Altobelli knows it will take much more than that to find the promised land.
"In those best-of-three series, we could ride those hot arms and they stepped up and did a great job, but for us to win this whole thing, we are going to need contributions from several people," Altobelli said. "I remember in 2009, in the championship game, we asked a kid who had started once for us all year (Josh Lee) to throw the biggest game of the year for us and he ended up getting us the win, so it's all hands on deck this weekend."
Sacramento City College, winners of 10 of its last 11 games, are coming off of a 6-1 postseason stretch. After sweeping past Chabot (6-1, 5-1) and Fresno City (13-7, 15-11) in the opening two rounds, the Panthers dropped the opener to Sierra College, 14-3, before taking the final two games (4-1, 2-1) to advance to Fresno.
The Panthers' offense is led by sophomore Jake Guenther, who leads the team in batting average (.338), hits (52), runs (46), doubles (14), walks (45), on-base percentage (.502) and slugging (.487). Jaylund Johnson poses another solid threat in the lineup with a .309 average with 47 hits and 34 RBI, while sophomore Kody Gardner (.278, 44 hits) leads the team with 47 RBI.
Sophomore starter Danny Chavez (6-1, 2.97 ERA, 37 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings) has been the opening-game starter for the past three rounds, so look for him to get the nod on Saturday. If the Panthers are carrying a lead late, look for Adam Erickson (5-1, eight saves, 1.80 ERA) and/or Lucas Reid (1-1, three saves, 1.26 ERA) to see the field.
For links to the other teams in the Final Four, plus links to live webcasts of all games this weekend, click HERE.