WATSONVILLE—The St. Francis High baseball team came into the season at the top of the ocean’s food chain as the defending Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division and Central Coast Section Division IV champion.
The Sharks were swimming their way closer to a second consecutive league title when their season took an unexpected turn for the worse.
Just five pitches into their matchup against Salinas High, sophomore ace pitcher and catcher Nash Horton–who was awarded with All-PCAL honors last year–suffered a devastating injury to his pitching arm that required surgery and rendered the season all but over.
“I threw one more and it popped,” he said. “At that moment I knew this is probably a season-ending injury, and that was a terrible feeling especially with how I felt going into that game.”
With the exception of a tough stretch earlier in the season, the Sharks are showing signs of dominance reminiscent of their 23-7 campaign last year that earned them the league crown.
But Sharks manager Kenny Nakagawa is also realistic that their chances of getting back to the promised land is going to be a lot tougher, especially now without the services of Horton.
“We’ve run a little better, we’re swinging as good but the power isn’t there,” he said. “The maturity of our pitching staff is better.”
St. Francis’ offense has functioned as a conveyor belt into home base by boasting three games with 10 or more runs scored, while giving up no more than five.
The only team standing in the way is Hollister High (13-2, 10-1), which has a 2-0 edge against the Sharks (12-4, 7-4) in PCAL Gabilan Division play this season.
Both of those losses came down to the wire where St. Francis controlled the lead within the final innings.
“A bounce here and a bounce there, we’re undefeated in the league,” Nakagawa said. “Our four losses could’ve gone either way, so I’m really happy with where our ballclub is at.”
Clearly the loss of Horton was a major blow to the foundation of the team, as the Sharks went on to lose their next three games.
However, the day after surgery Horton mustered enough strength to cheer his teammates on from the dugout and sent a message that even the lowest of lows couldn’t break the team’s resolve.
Since his return to the sidelines, the Sharks are undefeated with seven consecutive wins including a 4-0 record at the three-day Nipomo tournament.
After finishing 1-2 last season in the same tournament, St. Francis’ dominating performance is just one sign that they have gotten even better last year with more experience.
“We knew that going down there was going to be a turning point for us, it was a good bonding trip for the team,” Nakagawa said.
One such player that has made an immense impact has been senior Kyle Dyer, who started at catcher as a sophomore but was sidelined his entire junior year due to an injury suffered while playing quarterback.
Dyer has meant more to the team than just as a senior leader, as he leads his team on the field in batting average at .368, an on-base percentage of .547, a slugging percentage of .578, two home runs, and a fielding percentage of .991.
Amidst Horton’s absence, Dyer has elevated his game and been a major reason for the resurgence of the Sharks.
While their record has improved leaps and bounds with their current win streak, he still isn’t satisfied with where they are.
“Defensively we haven’t given up many runs,” Dyer said. “We’ve had a lot of close games, some of them we probably should have come back and taken.”
With just less than half of the regular season remaining, the Sharks hope to continue tallying wins to put them in a favorable position for postseason success.
St. Francis is coming off a 7-2 win over Palma in PCAL Gabilan Division action on Tuesday afternoon. Both teams were scheduled to play again Thursday.
Last season the Sharks found their calling card by launching home runs far beyond the fence from Seth Vazquez and Noel Aquino–the reigning PCAL Mission Division Player of the Year.
This year’s roster prides itself on playing stout defense and precision offense.
Neither the coaches nor players would bet on any team other than themselves to come out on top, though their route to a second league title will by no means come easy.
St. Francis braces for a difficult chapter of its PCAL Gabilan schedule, including a game against Monterey High (7-8, 5-5) at Frank Sollecito Jr. Ballpark in Monterey today at 7pm, followed by the third and final meeting against league leader Hollister.
“As long as we stick to the right mindset and keep pushing forward in the right way, I think that we could become league champions,” Horton said. “I just want to be able to have that feeling of winning a championship again because that was the best feeling last year.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that St. Francis High won the Central Coast Section Division VI champion, which is incorrect. They won the CCS Division IV championship, not Division VI.