The Christopher High Cougars celebrate on the field after recording the final out against Hollister in the CCS Division 3 Championship on May 25. Photo: Jonathan Natividad
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Christopher baseball’s 2024 Central Coast Section playoff run of three victories gave them their third CCS title in five non-Covid years, following first-place trophies in 2019 and 2022. 

In one amazing week in May, CHS won in different ways, with the latter two being dramatic barnburners. In each case, the Cardiac Cougars closed the door in the final inning with the opponents having the tying run in scoring position and the potential go-ahead run on base.

In the charge to the Division III trophy, Christopher beat Hillsdale 3-0, edged Palma 8-7 and topped Hollister 3-2. The first game was a pitching duel, with the Cougars scoring three on only four total hits on the day. 

In the second contest, the bats unloaded bigtime against the Chieftains. In the title match, pitching and defense shut down the red-hot Haybalers. 

In all three games, Christopher executed successfully on the little things to get big wins—bunts, heads-up baserunning, stellar defense, clutch pitching and crucial hits with men on base.

“We’ve been working hard all season for this moment,” said Cougars catcher Aiden Simeon, moments after the CCS title victory. “I’m super happy we got the job done.”

The CCS Division III championship game was held on a warm Saturday afternoon May 25, at San Jose’s Excite Ballpark. The Cougars protected a late one-run lead. On the final play, pitcher Nick Valentine induced a two-on, two-out ground ball to shortstop Devin Aragon, who flipped to second baseman Jacob Vasquez for a force out. 

Hats and gloves were tossed in the air as the bench joined the on-field players in an emotional celebration. Simeon did a backflip behind home plate and the Cougars rejoiced together and with their fans.

Christopher advanced on to the CIF NorCal Division III playoffs. They went up to Madera and ripped Liberty 12-4 on May 28. In a semifinal in Roseville two days later, they fell 5-3 to Oakmont and ended their season at 20-9.

For the year, Christopher was sparked on offense by Mason Dubenko and Sam Guenther, but received contributions up and down the lineup. Dubenko was 29-for-82 for a .354 average and a team-leading 27 RBIs. Guenther went 29-for-73 for a .397 mark, with 10 RBIs and two triples. He also led the Cougars with 11 steals. Ricky Wilkerson III hit 23-for-74 for .311 and 14 RBIs. Simeon was 20-for-70 for .286 with 15 RBIs and two triples.

Three CCS wins

Against Hillsdale, ace hurler Aaron Von Kerkwyk scattered seven hits and allowed no runs in a complete-game shutout. Vasquez and Guenther had doubles and Mateo Alcantar and Jesus Castro had singles.

Game two was over at Hartnell College in Salinas on May 23. Palma scored two runs on five hits in the top of the first. But Christopher replied bigtime, tallying five runs on four hits, a walk and three hit-by-pitches. Key plays included a Dubenko double down the right field line, a Simeon single to center and an Aragon single. 

With CHS leading 8-7 in the top of the sixth, Palma loaded the bases with one out. The next batter was red-hot Johnny Carnazzo, 3-for-4 with doubles in his two previous at-bats. Nick Valentine induced a grounder to short and a 6-4-3 double play ended the threat.

More strong defense shut the door in the seventh inning. Wilkerson laid out horizontally at third base to snare a line drive. With two on and two out, Palma’s Alan Gonzalez lined out to left fielder Castro.

“Our team showed who we are,” said Van Kerkwyk. “We fought hard. We got a lot of dogs. We’re a solid team. It feels great to win.”

The cumulative effort from the mound included Matthew Anderson, Valentine, Van Kerkwyk and closer Devin Aragon.

“My fastball located,” Aragon said. “My cutter too. I trust my defense. Our defense has been major all year. Ricky (Wilkerson) made a great diving play today. Our defense gets us out of jams.”

Christopher coach Ryan Dequin noted how this year’s team was off most people’s radar. Yet they always had ideas to make the playoffs and do some damage.

“It’s always been in the back of our heads,” said Dequin, after the Palma win. “We’re out to shock the world. We played well in huge situations. Our defense won that game; they have been solid all year.”

For the championship on May 25, Christopher faced the eighth-seeded Balers, who were coming off a 11-0 rout of top-seeded Aptos and a 14-0 blowout of Pioneer in which they scored 11 runs in the third inning. 

Hollister scored a run in the top of the first but with the bases loaded, Van Kerkwyk fanned Wes Aviles to limit the damage. Alcantar quickly drew the Cougars even with a triple over the right fielder’s head. A Baler overthrow to third allowed him to score and tie the game.

In the second, Dubenko poked a hit to right, Simeon singled to left and Jacob Huerta sacrificed both runners into scoring position. A Castro groundout to first plated one tally and then Simeon made one of the big plays of the day. After a pitch, a routine throw from the catcher back to the pitcher had gotten away.

“I turned my head and saw the ball behind the pitcher,” Simeon said. “I heard my coach. I just ran.”

Simeon darted home for a huge run and a 3-1 lead.

Pitching and defense held the fort thereafter. In the fifth, Hollister banged out three hits but scored just once and left two on base. CHS led 3-2 into the seventh. The Balers put two men on but Valentine retired the last batter on a grounder.

“We are always looking for the next base,” DeQuin said. “That can be the difference in a game. Do the little things. Get the bunt down. And our pitchers have been phenomenal. Aaron has been a bulldog all year. And Nick really stepped up. And our defense has been key all year.”

Christopher opened NorCal Division III play on May 28 at Liberty of Madera, the Central Section Division IV champ. The Cougars took control with three runs in the third and four in the fourth in building a 12-1 lead and coasting home. In the NorCal semifinal on May 30, the Cougars jumped ahead of Oakmont but couldn’t pull it out. The Vikings rallied to tie it up and pulled ahead late.

“We always battle,” Dequin said. “Nothing flashy about us.”

The un-flashy Cougars can flash another championship ring with this CCS title and another banner in the gym. Big wins in big games for one of the biggest programs on campus.

Christopher High senior Mason Dubenko had an outstanding final season for the Cougars in right field. Photo: Jonathan Natividad

Cougars fascinate

An amazing statistic illustrates Christopher’s gritty style. In the three CCS wins, the Cougars scored 14 runs on just 16 hits and nine opponent errors. The opponents had 31 hits but scored only nine runs, and Christopher committed just four errors. 

Additionally, the Cougars supplemented the offense with other little things. For example, against Palma, CHS had  two walks, three batters hit-by-pitch and five stolen bases. 

In the two NorCal games, CHS scored 15 runs on just 12 hits and five opponent errors. The opposition scored nine runs on 16 hits and just two Cougar errors. Most striking was the game against Liberty, where the Cougars aided the offense with seven walks and five batters hit-by-pitch.

In NorCal Division III play, Christopher traveled to Madera to take on 30-2 Liberty, the Central Section Division IV champ. The Hawks were on a 12-game win streak during which they outscored their opponents 121-12. Additionally, they had scored seven or more in 24 of 32 games. 

CHS held them to one run through the first six innings while building a 12-1 lead. Also, Liberty had allowed two or less runs in 24 of 32 games but CHS scored 12.

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