Travis Romero and Ryan Dequin likened the Christopher High baseball team’s emotions and season to a never-ending thrill ride.
“The season has been a roller coaster you can say,” said Dequin, who has been the coach of the Cougars for a total of eight years over two different stints.
“The emotion drives us into that work ethic and keeps on building,” Romero said. “We ride that roller coaster and try to keep on going up and not come back down.”
What goes up must come down, but in Christopher High’s case, they won’t be coming down anytime soon from a metaphorical standpoint. Waving a ride of emotion combined with fundamentally sound baseball, the No. 3 seed Cougars completed a storybook 2019 campaign with an impressive 5-3 win over Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Central Coast Section Division II playoff championship game at San Jose Municipal Stadium on Friday. The win was a historic one for Christopher, as it was the first CCS title in program history.
“We finally did it, we finally did it,” said Romero, a senior utility and one of the team’s sparkplugs. “(For the 13 seniors on the team) we’ve been wanting this since freshmen year. (At that time) we knew we could be something special. I’m at a loss for words right now. It’s crazy to finally be here, succeed and pull through.”
No team uses emotion to its advantage more than the Cougars, who finished the season 23-8 by combining talent, determination and all-out hustle. When a team possesses those attributes, it usually results in a championship formula. All season long, Christopher had a penchant for extending innings and scoring runs by making hustle plays and being alert on the base paths.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the bottom of the third inning, when the Cougars turned a one-run deficit into a 4-1 lead they would never relinquish. Karson Mazotti reached on a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning, and what looked to be a rather ho-hum inning turned into something much more.
Romero followed by legging out an infield single—it was such a bang-bang play that the first base umpire could’ve called an out—and Cody Ahola entered as a pinch runner for Mazotti at second base. Andrew Kachel then hustled down the line for another infield single that plated Ahola before Jack Tomlinson walked to load the bases.
Zach Griffin, the No. 5 hitter in the lineup, stroked a two-run single to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead. Moments later, Griffin intentionally took a couple of big strides off first base to get in a rundown. His only goal? To force an errant throw or stay in a rundown long enough for Tomlinson to score—which is exactly what happened.
The Cougars added an insurance run in the fifth inning, again with two outs. Singles from Kachel and Tomlinson is all it took for the run to score, as once again the Cougars used alert base running to make Sacred Heart Cathedral pay. Tomlinson’s single advanced Kachel to third base, and on the play, Tomlinson noticed the SHC pitcher had his head down.
Tomlinson was halfway to second base when the pitcher finally noticed, and the pursuit was on. Tomlinson eventually was tagged in the rundown, but not before Kachel crossed home plate to make it 5-2. The Cougars pride themselves on running hard to the bases on every play, and it paid off in a huge way.
“The infield singles really helped us build our momentum,” Romero said. “We have to hustle. We’re taught if we don’t give a hard 90 (sprinting to first base) during practice, we have to go all the way around the bases. So each time we give that hard 90 in a game, something good usually happens.”
Said Dequin: “We got them in rundowns and stole runs without getting hits. We preach 90 feet whether it’s a ball in the dirt or whether it’s catching guys with their heads down.”
Dequin had a conversation with his coaching staff the day before the game about making sure to give the base runners the proper read on balls in the dirt or any situation.
“The best role we as coaches could do is ball in the dirt reads,” he said. “It’s getting that extra 90 feet and that just moves on to everything.”
Cougars starter Brenden Lodge got the job done, allowing two runs and three hits over 4 2/3 solid innings. The lone junior on a team that consists of 13 seniors and two sophomores, Lodge delivered in a stadium he’s familiar with, as his family has been to several San Jose Giants games over the years. Knowing that, Dequin wondered if Lodge would be too amped and excited for the start. Meanwhile, Lodge knew he would have to control his nerves.
“Definitely the stress got to me a little bit, I’ll admit it,” said Lodge, whose demeanor and performance belied that fact. “I was trying to take it all in, and it’s definitely a different sight seeing a lot of faces behind that backstop. I knew I had to contain myself. When coach told me I was going to start this game, I knew it (the experience) was going to be something different.”
Lodge had his fastball working on the outside corner, located his changeup in the third and fourth innings and utilized a slider that got the SHC hitters off-balance. The 5-foot-11, 155-pound Lodge was ecstatic after watching his teammates score four times in the third.
“I was pumped up,” he said. “I’ve got my run support, the game is on me and I had the attitude that no one is going to beat me. It was the energy I needed to feed off from.”
Matt Peters tossed the final 2 1/3 innings to seal the outcome, four days after throwing a complete game in a 5-4 win over St. Ignatius in the quarterfinals. With a pitching trio of Jake Ornellas, Peters and Lodge, the Cougars were strong on the mound even a year after graduating workhorses Jonathan Newman and Sean Straub.
“I know Jake and Peters really looked up to Sean and Newman because they are a lefty-righty duo just like those two guys,” Romero said. “So this year they knew they had some big shoes to fill, and they succeeded, which is amazing. And Lodge as the only junior on the team, a lone ranger, he came up, was taught in our ways and succeeded as well.”
Before the season started, Lodge envisioned a moment like this, knowing the team was championship-caliber.
“I was trying to picture it in my head from the very beginning that this was the team to get here to the finals,” he said. “(So given the responsibility of starting) I knew I had to capitalize. We have 13 seniors, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Said Dequin: “Brenden was phenomenal and I had a gut feeling he would be alright.”
Christopher finished with seven hits—all singles—two each from Kachel and Griffin. The team was resourceful in scoring five runs, playing heads-up baseball and creating situations in which the opposing team needed to make the proper play and failed to do so. Every time the Cougars made a key play, they got emotional, which can backfire sometimes. However, Christopher used that emotion and carried with it a confidence that never wavered.
In the trophy and postgame celebration, the players shouted chants that only they themselves knew the meaning of. Dequin said that as a coach, displaying a lot of emotion can be frustrating at times, so he has to employ the delicate balancing act of letting the kids have fun while at the same time respecting the competition.
“I talked with the Sacred Heart coach before (the game) and said sometimes I don’t even understand what these guys say,” Dequin said. “I try to make sure it’s done with class, integrity and is always directed toward our guys. Sometimes what they say is out of left field, but they really use that emotion and rode with it. They did their chants and used that to pump themselves up, and it was huge.”
Playing with emotion is becoming more and more part of the game, even at the Major League level.
“We’re a very crazy team,” Romero said. “If that gets in the other team’s head, it’s our advantage.”
Romero said the team has great camaraderie because a lot of the players have been on the same team or competed against each other starting in T-ball or Little League. That is one of the reasons why the team had so much fun. It even started a tradition last year of drinking Capri Sun after a victory. Of course, the players were gulping the sugary drinks in the celebration afterward.
“There was a time last year when we were on a downward slope and we needed something to build on, so Jack’s dad Kevin brought out the juice box idea,” Romero said. “So whenever we won we got juice boxes and it’s been a tradition ever since.”
Dequin was proud of the team for persevering, grinding and doing everything necessary to win a section title. The Cougars certainly had a tough road, as they knocked off two schools from the vaunted West Catholic League to do it in St. Ignatius and SHC. They also beat solid teams in Hillsdale of San Mateo and Aptos.
“We got to the semifinals last year and probably should’ve gotten to the finals,” he said. “This team had something to prove and they did it.”