The St. Francis High baseball team was eliminated in the first round of the CIF NorCal Regional Division IV playoffs after a 4-3 loss to Saint Mary's of Albany on May 31. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE—St. Francis High baseball coach Ken Nakagawa knew going into this season they were not expected to win the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Mission Division over teams such as Alisal, Monte Vista Christian and Soledad.

But this particular group, especially the senior class, had already overcome too much adversity just to be written off that quick. 

As freshmen, they played on a varsity team that finished 3-25 overall, which was then followed by a season cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

At one point, the long-time skipper hinted at retirement but there was something about this Sharks team that brought new life into him.

“They kind of slept on us and didn’t believe in what we were doing over here,” he said. “We’re not going to hang our hat or give up.”

St. Francis captured the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section title last week after putting together a late rally to beat Carmel High in the Division IV final at Excite Ballpark in San Jose.

With the win, they earned the No. 3 seed in the inaugural CIF NorCal Regional Division IV playoffs.

The Sharks’ season came to an end after a 4-3 loss to No. 6 Saint Mary’s in Tuesday’s first round game. 

“To be honest with you, it’s an emotional ball game,” said Nakagawa, as he looked over at the players one last time before riding off into the sunset.

Sharks senior slugger Noel Aquino also mentioned how big of a factor the young players were in the team’s success.  

“They just kept me up all season, they had a lot of trust in me and it gave me a lot of confidence,” Aquino said.

One of those up-and-coming young players is freshman pitcher Nash Horton, who was 6-0 going into Tuesday’s game. He got the green light to start on the mound for St. Francis.

Horton went up against Willamette University-commit EJ McGrew, who had recorded 25 strikeouts in his last two outings for the Panthers.

Nakagawa said he was hoping they’d hang around long enough by putting themselves in a spot to have a chance, which he believed they did for the most part.  

“If you play catch and throw strikes you’re going to win most high school baseball games,” he said. “Unfortunately today we didn’t play catch when we needed to but it happens, it’s part of the game.” 

The Sharks did put the pressure on McGrew early in the first inning with the bases loaded and two outs. But he managed to get out of the jam after he caught senior Seth Vazquez looking for a strikeout. 

“[McGrew] had good stuff, his offspeed was good. He can locate,” St. Francis first baseman Noel Aquino said. “He just did his thing on the mound and well deserved, he pitched a good game.”

After knocking on the door several times, sophomore infielder/pitcher Micah Cervantes smacked a two-run single in the bottom half of the fourth that drove in Horton and Joel Mendoza for a 2-0 lead. 

“We knew they weren’t going to lay down and give us this game,” McGrew said. “We knew it was going to be tough and we found a way.”

The Sharks had several opportunities to rattle the NCAA D-III prospect, yet, they failed to capitalize on those critical moments.  

On the other side, a pair of costly errors by the Sharks’ defense in the sixth inning allowed the Panthers to notch back-to-back runs, tying the score at 2-all.

Saint Mary’s took its first lead of the game in the top of the seventh when McGrew smashed a one-run double, followed by a sacrifice fly that made it 4-2.

“We knew that we had to come in and just battle each and every inning,” Aquino said. “Once we got up, I think we put it in cruise control and I thought I shouldn’t have let that happen, as a leader. But at the end of the day, things happen.”

The Sharks continued to show their “never give up” attitude when senior Dez Litel scored to make it a one-run game, 4-3, in the bottom half of the seventh. 

Down by one run, Aquino had a chance to be the super hero for St. Francis but any attempt of a come-from-behind victory was cut short.

A breaking ball pitch fooled the Sharks slugger for the final out to end what was a remarkable season for the entire program. 

“It sucks to strike out like that but it’s baseball,” Aquino said. “That’s life and life keeps going on. Baseball is just a game to have fun.”

Aquino, who will continue his baseball career next season at Central Christian College of Kansas, said this season was amazing and he couldn’t ask for anything more.

The Sharks will miss a chunk of their offense with Aquino’s departure, yet, he’s fully confident the young players will return to win it all next season. 

Nakagawa had a conversation with Aquino before his last at-bat and told him that no matter the outcome, it’s just a baseball game.

“It’s not always about baseball, or throwing a strike or catching a baseball, it’s about life and life lessons,” Nakagawa said. “Hopefully we’ve done a good job of creating good, young men.”

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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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