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San Benito High baseball team hopes experience will be key in potential CCS championship run

Wyatt Barton has been superb this season, helping lead the Haybalers to a No. 2 seed in the CCS Division II playoffs. They open at home against Branham on Saturday at 1 p.m. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

Four high school baseball teams in the Weeklys South Valley coverage area—Christopher, Live Oak, San Benito and Sobrato—found out where they were placed after the Central Coast Section seeding meeting on May 18. 

All opening round/quarterfinal games take place Saturday. Live Oak (18-8), the Blossom Valley League Mount Hamilton Division champion, received the No. 8 seed in the top Division I field and plays at No. 1 St. Francis (26-4) at noon. 

San Benito (19-8), the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division champion, earned the No. 2 seed in the Division II bracket and hosts No. 7 Branham (19-8) at 1pm. Branham tied for second in the BVAL Mount Hamilton Division with a 9-5 mark. 

Christopher, which finished 8-13 in the PCAL Gabilan Division, is the No. 8 seed in Division V and plays No. 1 Capuchino of San Bruno at Mills High in Millbrae at 4pm. Capuchino (17-10) went 7-7 in tying for third place in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division. 

Sobrato, which finished the regular-season 12-11 overall and 5-9 in the Mount Hamilton, got the No. 6 seed in Division IV and plays at No. 3 Carmel (17-10), the fourth-place finisher from the Gabilan, at 10am. Even though the Bulldogs finished four games below .500 in league play, seven of the nine losses came by three runs or less. 

With co-aces Ethan Marmie and Seth Hernstedt, the Bulldogs have the ability to make a deep run in the Division IV bracket which has Santa Teresa as the top seed. Santa Teresa, which tied Branham for second place in the Mount Hamilton, beat Sobrato in both of their league games, 7-5 in eight innings and 6-4. 

Sobrato came up with two critical victories in the final week of the league season to earn a playoff berth, sweeping Branham 10-7 and 5-4 in eight innings. Michael Balderas and Shane Callison drove in three runs each in the first game and in the next game Marmie allowed two earned runs over six innings, while Hernstedt and Thomas Martinelli combined for five hits and three RBI. 

Live Oak coach Matt Brotherton will most assuredly start Landon Stump, the outstanding UCLA-commit who is No. 20 in Prep Baseball Report’s national player rankings for the class of 2023. For the Acorns, that’s the good news. The bad news? St. Francis has three or four pitchers similar to Stump’s caliber. 

“The difference between us and them is depth,” Brotherton said. “If their guy isn’t doing well, they can go to three to four more guys who can do just as well and are D1-type commits.”

The Lancers are ranked No. 4 in the state by Max Preps and a formidable foe, and they’ve proven to be the best team in the CCS all season. But the Acorns—who are averaging nearly four stolen bases a game and 94-for-103 on steal attempts—don’t have to beat St. Francis in a best-of-three or best-of-five game series.

It’s a one-game scenario and though it’s a cliche, anything can happen. 

“That’s where the single elimination format helps us,” Brotherton said. “If we had to play them in a best-of-three game series, we might not have as good a chance.”

Brotherton said the players are relishing the challenge of taking on the best team in the CCS. The Acorns are 1-1 against West Catholic League teams this season, having lost to Valley Christian 15-3 on April 12 before rebounding with a 7-0 win over Bellarmine on April 19. 

Valley Christian and Bellarmine finished in a tie for second place in the WCAL with 10-3-1 records, just behind St. Francis at 12-2. 

“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and that means you’ll have to go through the WCAL to win a CCS title in D1,” Brotherton said. “Whoever our opponent was going to be, it was going to be a tough match. But this is what the kids wanted.”

San Benito coach Billy Aviles knows Branham will be a formidable challenge behind its ace, Liam Thompson, who is 6-2 with a whopping 74 strikeouts over 48 innings. Opponents are hitting just .157 against Thompson, who does have a propensity to get his pitch count up. 

To that end, Aviles said the key for his hitters will be plate discipline and making Thompson throw a lot of pitches. The Balers played the toughest non-league schedule in the section this season, a big reason why they accumulated 70 points this season, second only to St. Francis’ 72 ½. 

Even though they went 0-6 against those top-tier teams, they’ve seen the best of the best. 

“So anyone we go against, it’s not anything we haven’t seen before,” Aviles said. “We’ve seen all the West Catholic schools, the top lefty from Wilcox. It’s just a matter of executing our game plan, so we shall see.” 

San Benito fell flat in losing to Sequoia in last year’s CCS Division II championship game, but the majority of the core group returned and Aviles is banking on an added year of experience and the tough non-league schedule to power the team and finish the deal this time. 

“The extra year of maturity and experience is huge in those big games,” Aviles said. “Beating Bellarmine last year in the playoffs and playing all those WCAL teams will mature your kids in a hurry.”

Aviles watched carefully as his top three pitchers—Jackson Pace, Wyatt Barton and Brandon Flores—threw their bullpen sessions Tuesday. He can go with any one of the three to start Saturday’s contest, but no matter who starts all three could see time on the mound. 

“They give three completely different looks and all do their jobs,” Aviles said. 

The lineup is balanced, with no superstar but plenty of solid players. Breyon Chavez, Jaden Mingus and Matt Pena—three-fourths of the infield—have been starters since their freshman year. Adrian Ruiz and Billy Aviles are capable of making an impact, either with their bat or glove. 

“All of the D2 opening round games are going to be bloodbaths because everyone has an arm,” Aviles said. 

As the fifth-place team from the Gabilan, Christopher coach Ryan Dequin knew his team was in the dance. He just didn’t know where it would get slotted. While the Cougars may be a No. 8 seed going against a No. 1 seed, the matchup against Capuchino could very well be a tossup. 

Capuchino is no doubt a solid program, but Christopher found its stride halfway through the league season and has been steeled by playing tough opponents in San Benito and Palma three times each and Live Oak in non-league competition. 

“We’re in a good spot,” Dequin said. “Capuchino has played some good teams, but so have we. When you play San Benito, Palma and Monterey in your league, we’ve seen some of the best and will be prepared. It’s going to be a matter of how we perform. Some games we battled Salinas, Palma, San Benito, and some games we didn’t show up to play. So it’s going to depend on how we do in that regard.”

The Cougars have been buoyed by the performances from starters Dylan Betancourt and Nicholas Valentine. The two have been solid and shown the capability to contain strong lineups. Betancourt pitched seven shutout innings in the team’s season-finale, a 3-0, 11-inning loss to Monterey on May 10. 

It might as well have been a microcosm of the season. 

“They (Betancourt and Valentine) could have better records, but sometimes our offense fell short and we struggled at times with run support,” Dequin said. “But they’ve been a nice 1-2 punch and are pretty solid. Obviously being a single elimination tournament, it’ll be all hands on deck and they’ll be ready to go.”

As will Will Anderson, the team’s first baseman and No. 3 hitter in the order. Anderson hit over .400 in league games and always put the pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense. Leadoff hitter Eric Cantu has been on a nice hitting streak lately and getting on base at a proficient rate, while Aiden Simeon has been hitting well in the cleanup spot and playing an outstanding shortstop. 

“Those guys have been a huge piece of ours toward the back end of the season,” Dequin said. “I think we’re in a pretty prime opportunity. We’re in an eight-team bracket where you need two wins to get to the finals. This is a good opportunity for us with such a young team. We started mostly underclassmen all year so for them to get that experience and understand what it’s like to play in the CCS playoffs is going to pay off in the future.”

Jackson Pace delivered another solid season on the bump for the reigning Gabilan Division champions. File photo.

Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at elee@weeklys.com