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Another spurt of rain last Thursday, May 4, in what’s been a water-logged spring season forced the JSerra baseball team to wait to open the CIF-SS Division 1 playoffs and, following their first-round win at Yucaipa on Monday, May 8, play on back-to-back days in the opening rounds.
But playoff pressure? Back-to-back one-game elimination situations? That’s nothing new for these Lions.
JSerra got nearly another complete-game performance on the mound in the second round on Tuesday, May 9, and three home runs in the fifth inning to continue their late-season surge and defeat Etiwanda, 6-1, in the Division 1 second round at JSerra Catholic High School.
The defending CIF-SS Division 1 champion Lions will host Sierra Canyon in the quarterfinals on Friday, May 12.
“It’s more the team of what they’ve been through this year,” JSerra coach Brett Kay said. “ ’23, just like ’21 and ’22, bad starts, rough starts. A lot of things early for our team, and those guys have battled through it. (Monday’s starting pitcher Matt Champion) has been there, done that. (Tuesday’s starter) Ben (Reimers) has been there, done that. I think it’s just the battle of attrition, and knowing they’re experienced and been there before. They’ve been our horses.”
Last season, JSerra began the season 6-9 overall and 1-6 in Trinity League play before winning 17 of 18 games to earn the No. 2 seed in Division 1 and capture the program’s first CIF-SS championship.
This season, JSerra, which opened the year with 18 players with NCAA Division 1 commitments, started the season 3-5, including losses in its first four Trinity League games. The Lions then, once again, turned on the jets to advance to the championship game of the National High School Invitational, clinched a playoff spot on the league’s final day and earned the No. 4 seed in CIF-SS Division 1.
“I feel like such a bad coach at the beginning of the year,” Kay joked, “because we have these expectations, not only of our program but externally, and whether we read the headlines too much or whatever. We just put our head down after that, after the struggle and we just get after it and start being what JSerra baseball is. That’s gritty, gutty, pitching and defense, opportunistic offensively. We’ve got some really good players that don’t want to be done playing.”
Those players include junior Matt Champion, who threw a complete-game shutout at Yucaipa on Monday; Stanford-committed senior Ben Reimers, who threw 6 1/3 innings on Tuesday with one run allowed on a balk; and USC-committed senior Andrew Lamb, Cal-committed senior Dominic Smaldino and UC Santa Barbara-committed senior Jonathan Mendez, who each hit a home run in the fifth inning on Tuesday.
“It stems back to our relationship with one another,” Lamb said. “We grew up together. The 18-19 of us, we just stick together so well, and as the game progresses, we get better.”
Lamb, last season’s CIF-SS Division 1 Player of the Year, got the Lions on the board in the third inning. After Etiwanda opened the scoring with a run off a balk in the top of the inning, Lamb reached on a single that struck the second baseman and scored on a bases-loaded fielder’s choice by Mendez to tie the game, 1-1.
In the fourth inning, JSerra went ahead with a lead-off triple from Caruso and another single that struck off of an Etiwanda infielder, a run-scoring hit for sophomore Jordan Marian.
“In the playoffs, you have to come from behind, you have to win on the road and you have to be lucky,” Kay said.
JSerra then ran away with the game in the fifth. Lamb led off with a ball that carried over the right-field fence, and after a single by JSerra’s top MLB Draft prospect and Oregon State-committed senior Trent Caraway, Smaldino crushed a ball to left-center field for a two-run home run. Following an Etiwanda pitching change, Mendez launched another ball over the left-center field fence for a four-run fifth inning and a five-run JSerra lead.
On the mound, Reimers had an effective mix with his fastball and off-speed pitches to fan seven strikeouts with just four hits and one walk. Pitch count sent him to the dugout in the seventh inning, but Josh Hollins closed out the game for the 6-1 Lions win.
With another late season charge and back-to-back playoff wins on back-to-back days, JSerra is in another groove with the possibility of back-to-back championships on the horizon.
“This team is experienced,” Kay said. “They’ve been there. They’ve played in the Boras Classic. They’ve played on back-to-back days in Boras and (the National High School Invitational). They know what one-game tournaments are about.”