May 20, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Crean Lutheran baseball team embracing underdog role in CIF playoffs

Crean Lutheran players, who bleached their hair after an opening round playoff victory, celebrate after Tuesday’s win at home. (Photo courtesy Crean Lutheran Shutterbugs, John Luciano).

Saints face Moorpark Friday in quarterfinal round.

Crean Lutheran High School’s baseball team opened some eyes in the Southern California baseball world stunning No. 2 seeded Paloma Valley 9-8 on the road in the opening round of the CIF Division 2 playoffs.

The Saints, who entered the playoffs as an at-large team from the Empire League, then defeated Citrus Valley 3-2 in nine innings Tuesday in the second round to earn a berth in the quarterfinals Friday at Moorpark.

Crean Lutheran was the top-seeded team in Division 4 last year, reaching the finals before losing to Canyon 3-0 at Blair Field. It was Crean Lutheran’s second trip to the CIF finals.

But many players from that squad graduated and the Saints returned just two every day starters, shortstop Sho Garcia and catcher Jackson Haney, the son of Coach Jake Haney.

However, the squad (17-12) has exceeded expectations and is now just two wins away from another CIF final in a higher division from last season.

“We are just excited to have another chance to play together,” Jake Haney said Thursday. “We’ve always done well in the past taking long road trips to random schools. We’ve never played (Moorpark). It brings a different level of excitement into the whole situation.

“I know the guys are ready and we will take that underdog mentality to Moorpark.”

Moorpark (17-10-1) is the No. 2 team from the Coastal Canyon League and has captured victories over Crescenta Valley (7-1) and Valencia of Valencia (4-3) to reach the quarterfinals.

The winner of Thursday’s game faces the winner of the Ayala vs. Canyon game in the semifinals Tuesday.

Tuesday’s second round extra inning game will stand out for Saints fans, who packed the stands along with fans from Citrus Valley. A one-out walk-off walk by Walker Richardson with a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth inning to drive in Cooper McIllroy, who led off with a single, sent the players and home fans into a massive celebration.

“At that point, I put my card down that I call our offense because there was nothing to call, it’s a full count, bases loaded and one out and at that point, you just pray, you just hope for the best possible outcome,” Jake Haney said. “I feel bad for their guy too because he’s a really good player, but for our kid you kind of hope that the pitch isn’t that close so they don’t have to feel that pressure, and it wasn’t very close.”

Garcia had two hits and a run scored and Jackson Haney had two hits, including a key hit in the ninth inning.

“He’s a good baseball player and he wants to win, he just wants to win so he can play with his boys,” Jake Haney said of Jackson Haney. “We have 23 of those dudes that just want to win so we can practice tomorrow.”

Jake Haney, who has been named one of the coaches for the annual Orange County All-Star Baseball Game, continues to believe in his players.

“It’s confidence, and also nothing to lose, at some point, the odds are not in our favor to win five games in a row and so if you’re afraid to lose, we’re probably not going to win,” he said. “This team is not scared to lose, we might lose, we could lose, but we’re going to compete our hearts out and really focus on pitch to pitch. This team is unreal, pitch to pitch, minimizing the moment and focusing on the task. It’s pretty special.”

Crean Lutheran players celebrated Tuesday’s victory in their own way.

“Our whole team decided to bleach our hair,” said Garcia, who was sporting a new look for Tuesday’s game.

—Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone;