The No. 4-seeded St. Francis High baseball team will play in the Central Coast Section Division IV final against No. 3 Carmel High at Excite Ballpark in San Jose on Friday at 4pm. (The Pajaronian file photo)

SANTA CLARA—After the St. Francis High baseball team split a two-game set with Soledad High during the Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division season, no one expected the rubber match to be a blowout. 

After all, the two league contests were decided by a combined four runs. That’s what made the Sharks’ 10-0, five-inning mercy-rule win over the Aztecs Wednesday in a Central Coast Section Division IV playoff semifinal at Washington Park all the more impressive. 

“Yes it does,” St. Francis coach Ken Nakagawa said, when asked if the score indicated just how well the team is playing. “That’s a quality baseball team over there in Soledad, and take nothing away from their side. But our guys played their butts off today.”

The No. 4 seed Sharks (23-6) play No. 3 seed Carmel (19-10) for the D-IV title on Friday at Excite Ballpark—formerly known as San Jose Municipal Stadium—at 4pm. This will be St. Francis’ third appearance in a CCS title game, the last coming in 2018 when it lost to the King’s Academy for the D-III championship. 

“Making the CCS championship game is what we’ve dreamed of all year,” said cleanup hitter and first baseman Noel Aquino, whose towering two-run home run with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning induced the mercy-rule victory over Soledad. “We talked about that all year leading up to this game, but we know the job isn’t finished.”

Freshman sensation Nash Horton went the full five innings and allowed just two hits while striking out five for the shutout. Utilizing a fastball, change-up and slider, Horton was masterful, improving his record to 5-0 and lowering his ERA to 0.90. 

It’s not often a freshman pitcher will start a CCS playoff semifinal game, but Horton isn’t just another freshman. The adage of the athlete having ice water in his veins certainly applied to Horton on Wednesday. 

“Ah man, what a big stage for a freshman, but Nash has been throwing well for us all year,” Nakagawa said. “Obviously, he’s our starting catcher when he’s not pitching and has played well for us behind the plate all year. We knew Kai (Price) had a little tenderness in his arm so he wasn’t able to go. Nash stepped up in a big way and that’s what we expect out of him.”

Horton pitched his best when it counted the most. When Soledad loaded the bases in the top of the second inning, Horton induced a flyball out against leadoff man Jorge Olivarria, who entered the contest hitting over .400. In the fifth, after striking out Eric Segura—the Oregon State-commit and Soledad’s cleanup hitter who led the Aztecs with a robust .469 average—Horton was noticeably amped, pounding his right hand into his glove as he walked to the dugout. 

For the second straight postseason game, the Sharks’ bats were hitting the ball on the screws. They pounded out 10 hits and even their outs were productive as three of their 10 runs came via sacrifice-fly. St. Francis scored in every inning, scoring one time in the first, three in the second, single runs in the next two innings before the five-run mini uprising in the fifth to end things. 

“If we throw strikes and play catch which we’re capable of doing, we know we’re pretty offensive and that obviously showed today,” Nakagawa said. 

Leadoff hitter Micah Cervantes drove in three runs and scored twice, and No. 2 hitter Miles Guardino went 2-for-3 with two RBI. The No. 3 batter in the order, J.R. Ibarra, had another solid day with two RBI. Cervantes also made a nice defensive play from third base in the fifth. 

Aquino went 2-for-3 and reached base three times, and No. 9 hitter Dez Litel reached base in all three of his plate appearances, walking twice and doubling in his final at-bat. All told, a complete performance from the Sharks, who get their shot for the title against a Carmel team that went 12-8 in the PCAL’s upper Gabilan Division this season.  

No matter what happens Friday, St. Francis should be proud of its season. The program has come a long way in a short period of time. After the run to the 2018 CCS championship game, the team took a nosedive. Seth Vasquez, Guardino and Litel were freshmen on the 2019 team that finished 3-25 and lost several games by double digits. 

Players like Aquino and Price transferred in as sophomores and played for the 2020 team that finished 0-10 in the Covid shortened season. Joel Mendoza also was a sophomore on the 2020 squad. The team went 8-8 last year and armed with additional talent and experience, the Sharks have made their move in 2022. 

But as is often the case for a team’s rise to the top, it took some major growing pains. 

“Our seniors got beat up a bit and they’ve kind of taken it personal,” Nakagawa said. “We have a great blend of older guys with younger guys and they get along really well. For us, the most important thing is the camaraderie. I don’t think the guys want to stop seeing each other, to be honest with you, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re peaking.”

Aquino said the players can play free because the coaching staff doesn’t hammer them if they make a mistake. 

“If we mess up, we’re coached not to dwell on it and to go get the next one,” Aquino said. “Our coaching staff helps us a lot and they’re the best.”

St. Francis will stick to its one game at a time approach, since that is what got them to this point. 

“We know what winning a championship means for our community, our school, our program,” Nakagawa said. “We just try to keep doing things the right way.”

It shows.

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