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By Zach Cavanagh

FULLERTON – JSerra had long established itself as a baseball powerhouse.

The Lions program has produced plenty of college products, MLB prospects and a couple of major leaguers, including a No. 1 overall draft pick. JSerra has had Trinity League champions, top-seeded teams, its first-ever title game appearance last season and a regional championship last season.

But what remained most elusive for JSerra head coach Brett Kay’s program was that gold CIF-Southern Section championship plaque.

Until Friday night at Goodwin Field at Cal State Fullerton.

Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks evened the score of the CIF-SS Division 1 Final on a JSerra error in the top of the sixth inning, but as they had all season, the Lions continued to grind. Owen Fuller reached on a one-out triple in the bottom of the sixth inning and scored on a Dominic Smaldino single for the go-ahead run as JSerra went on to defeat the Knights, 3-1, and win its first CIF-SS championship.

“It still doesn’t sound real,” JSerra senior David Horn said. “I can’t believe it. I’ve seen interviews where guys are at a loss for words, and I’ve never had that feeling. And to feel that is special, man. This group of guys is different. We knew it when we were down, and we knew it when we were up. We never lost that fight. This is an unreal moment.”

When the gold-plated CIF-SS championship plaque was handed off, Kay turned to the JSerra faithful, lifted the plaque over his head and let out a rousing yell, as the central pillar of the Lions program finally won this most coveted hardware.

“This is for all the kids that have been in our program before that have laid the foundation,” Kay said. “Mark Spizzirri took a chance on me as the founder of the school as a 26-year-old kid with one year of head coaching experience at Capistrano Valley Christian. We’ve had great teams, and this is the one maybe you didn’t think was going to win it. They just kept believing in themselves and competing.”

JSerra (23-10) started out the season 6-9 overall and 1-6 in Trinity League play. The Lions leaned into their pitching and defense and eventually found their stride to win 17 of their last 18 games to earn the No. 2 seed in Division 1 and charge to this CIF-SS title.

“We had a rough start to the season,” Fuller said, “but nobody ever had a doubt that we were going to be here and we were going to win it. It’s super special.”

Fuller and Horn were two of the few that returned from last season’s JSerra team that made the program’s first CIF-SS Final and lost a heartbreaker to Harvard-Westlake on that same Cal State Fullerton field. It’s something that stuck with Fuller and Horn in particular as the season went on.

“I remember the time after the game,” Fuller said of last season’s title game, “and I was sitting with David and Luke Jewett, and I looked at David and said we were going to be here.  I never doubted that from that moment.”

Despite grounding into two double plays in the first two innings, JSerra got the initial upper hand on Friday.

Brandon Chang reached base with a one-out walk and was moved over to second on a sacrifice bunt by Jack Bourne. Chang scored on a triple by Andrew Lamb, and JSerra was in business, 1-0.

In the field, JSerra leaned into its staples to maintain that slim lead.

In the second inning, Bourne rifled a ball from center field to the plate, where Chang was able to reach back to his left and apply the tag to end the inning and keep Notre Dame off the scoreboard.

Outside of that play, JSerra starter JJ Hollis made things relatively easy for his fielders. Hollis threw 4 2/3 innings with no runs allowed on three hits and one hit batter. Hollis lost a little command in the fifth inning and wasn’t pleased when he was removed by Kay. However, it worked out as Tyler Gough got a bases-loaded strikeout to deny the Knights threat.

Notre Dame eventually got on the board in the sixth inning by JSerra’s hand.

Following two walks to lead off the inning, JSerra threw away a sacrifice bunt attempt for an error. The Knights got one run across to tie the game, 1-1, but with a heads-up defensive play by Jonathan Mendez at shortstop to throw out a runner at home and two Gough strikeouts, the Lions limited the damage.

In the bottom of the sixth, JSerra grabbed its destiny.

Fuller laced a ball to left center field and raced to third on a one-out triple. Mendez was intentionally walked behind him, and Smaldino hit a ball up the middle through a Notre Dame infield that was crashing the plate looking for the squeeze bunt. Fuller scored on Smaldino’s hit to put JSerra ahead, and Mendez scored on a sacrifice fly by Horn for a 3-1 lead for the Lions.

Notre Dame led off the seventh inning with a walk, but Gough slammed the door with three straight strikeouts to send JSerra streaming out of the dugout and into a championship frenzy.

“Our whole thing all year is we have to win innings five, six, seven,” Fuller said. “So when that time comes around, everybody gets excited, and today we were really able to do that.”

Next up for JSerra is an opportunity to defend its CIF SoCal Regional Championship, should the Lions choose to do so. Harvard-Westlake did not compete in the regionals after winning the CIF-SS title last year, and teams across all CIF-SS will do this, as they see CIF-SS as the ultimate goal.

If JSerra enters the Regionals, the brackets will be released on Sunday, and the first round will be played on Tuesday at higher-seeded home sites.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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