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September 22, 2023

Sharks post late rally to steal D-IV crown from Carmel | CCS baseball 

St. Francis earns No. 3 seed in inaugural CIF NorCal D-IV playoffs

SAN JOSE—It almost seemed like nothing was going in favor of the St. Francis High baseball team, which was down to its final three outs in the Central Coast Section Division IV finals Friday afternoon. 

After being held to just one run in the first six innings, the No. 4-seeded Sharks mustered together three late runs in the top half of the seventh en route to a 4-2 victory over No. 3 Carmel High, capturing their first-ever title in the program’s history. 

“Throughout the game it was just hang in there…I don’t know what to say, I’m in shock right now,” Ibarra said. 

Ibarra, who scored the Sharks’ first run in the fourth, was solid on the mound, giving up two earned runs on five hits while recording three strikeouts for the complete game victory.

The sophomore standout said capturing the title was a redemption story for him and his family, especially for his older brother Ruben.  

Ruben Ibarra, drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2021 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, was part of the 2018 team that lost in the D-III title game against The King’s Academy.  

It was the third CCS title game appearance for St. Francis, which lost to Branham High in the D-II championship in 2014.

“We’re a whole different program, we’re not the same thing,” JR Ibarra said. “We can do whatever we want to do. If we put our mind to it, we’re out of here.”

Senior outfielder Dez Litel executed a late bunt that brought in two of the three runs scored in the top of the seventh. 

It was just three years ago he was a freshman on a varsity team that finished with a 3-25 overall record. Litel said the thought of going from worst to first is amazing.

“It’s crazy,” he said with a grin from ear-to-ear, reminiscing just how far they’ve come.

With the win, the Sharks earned the No. 3 seed in the Division IV field of the inaugural CIF NorCal Regional playoffs. They will host No. 6 Saint Mary’s (18-9-1) of Albany on Tuesday at 4pm. 

The Panthers placed fourth in the Tri-County Athletic League’s Rock Division. 

Senior infielder/designated hitter Saul Noel Aquino said he had no doubt that his teammates were going to come through in the end.

“I wasn’t worried about anything,” he said. “We just had to make things happen. [Carmel] was giving us opportunities, we just had to come through.”

Aquino added that winning the CCS championship meant they could overcome anything, especially after also being part of the rough 2018 varsity season. 

He also mentioned the adversity of overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic and what it felt like to be on the losing side of a title game. 

Aquino was a lineman on this year’s Sharks football team that lost to Aragon in the D-V final. 

“This is the dream that we work for all season,” Aquino said. “Coach Kenny [Nakagawa] put it in our heads that we have to win this. This is our year to do what we have to do to put up our banners. It’s a great feeling.”

St. Francis coach Ken Nakagawa was emotional after the game and gave each one of his players a big bear hug to congratulate them.

“Like I said from Day 1, these seniors have been beat up as freshmen,” he said. 

Nakagawa said there were always three goals: win the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Mission Division (check), reach the CCS postseason (check) and win the whole thing (double check).

“Like I told the guys in being here before, it’s just another baseball game,” Nakagawa said. “They’ve been great all year, they love each other…It’s not about Xs and Os or throwing baseballs, team camaraderie and family are huge.” 

Alex Harrison’s run-scoring single gave Carmel a 1-0 lead over the Sharks after the first inning. 

In the fourth, Aquino drove in Ibarra on a base hit single to center field, tying the game at 1-all. 

Jackson Bartholomew answered right back with an RBI single in the bottom half of the frame, driving in Harrison that gave the Padres a 2-1 lead.

Carmel was looking to light up the scoreboard, but Sharks first baseman Miles Guardino made an impressive catch along the netting in foul territory to end the inning. 

The Padres offense threatened again in the bottom of the fifth with runners on first and second base. 

Ibarra collected himself and managed to get the Sharks out of dangerous waters, preventing Carmel from extending the lead.

“We’ve challenged through many other one-run games, we already knew we were going to come back from this,” Ibarra said. “It was nothing.” 

Senior outfielder Seth Vazquez said he knew it was up to him to get things started as the lead-off hitter in the seventh, especially after the coaching staff told him to be the clutch player that he’d been all season. 

“I was just thinking something up the middle, nothing special,” he said. 

Freshman catcher Nash Horton executed a bunt attempt and safely reached base after an errant throw to first, which also allowed Vazquez to steal third.

Zander Lunt came in to relieve starting left-handed pitcher JJ Sanchez, who gave up just one run on four hits in six innings.

Litel said facing a left-handed pitcher at the plate for the first time this season made things difficult.

“Just coming off the other side, he only threw outside pitches, so that was kind of hard for us,” Litel said. “We’re pretty much a pull-heavy team and the fact that he just pitched it outside, it screwed with us a little bit.”

Horton quickly showed off his speed against Lunt after he stole second base on him.

Shortly later, Litel executed another bunt for the Sharks, allowing Vazquez to reach home plate. Then an errant throw to first base allowed Horton to score, giving St. Francis its first lead of the game at 3-2.

Litel later scored on a sacrifice fly by Micah Cervantes, extending the lead to 4-2 and capping off the scoring for the game.

Litel said he wasn’t nervous in the pressure situation and felt like he put the ball in a good spot, giving credit to Nakagawa for the idea of a bunt attempt. 

“He told me to do it and I just put it down,” Litel said. 

Ibarra said he had told his teammates at that point that it was do or die and they had to let the opposition know they meant business then. 

“As soon as we got in that defense in that last inning, I was like, ‘That’s it, I’m the baddest dude on this field and no one’s going to beat me,’” Ibarra said. “From there I was going to go as hard as I can, 110% until I pass out or something.”

Luckily he didn’t pass out because the Sharks still needed him for the final three outs to win the game. 

Vazquez said at one point he didn’t realize they were on the verge of winning the game.

“I thought it was the fifth inning. I was like, ‘Man we got a long time to go, I’m ready,’” he said. “I look up at the scoreboard and see how many outs, and I was like, ‘Wow, we’re one pitch away.’”

Guardino said he never thought they’d be in a position to win a CCS championship, let alone a league title. 

He remembers being an eighth-grader and deciding to attend St. Francis after watching the 2018 team that reached the D-III title game against The King’s Academy.

“I got a sense of community,” Guardino said. “Being here, it means more than the world to me.” 

Nakagawa said as cliche as it sounds, the entire team bought into the system and they’ve listened well, including the seniors. 

“For them, I’m happy and obviously I don’t want to see them go,” he said. “It’s kind of emotional to be honest, it’s a great group of young men.

But, the season is still not over for the Sharks, who will host at least one more home game. 

“The job’s not finished, fight until the end,” Ibarra said. “Once we see that last pitch go out of the hand, then it’s over. But we’ll fight until it’s over, we can’t give up at all.”

Juan Reyes
A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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