June 15, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Cypress survives late Pacifica rally to capture another Empire League championship

Cypress players celebrate after capturing the Empire League title Thursday. (Photos: Tom Connolly, For OC Sports Zone).

With the Empire League title on the line in a winner-take-all scenario, the final regular season game between rivals Pacifica and Cypress High School baseball teams proved to be filled with excitement and anxiety and the outcome wasn’t decided until the final play of the game Thursday.

Centurions’ right fielder Greg Prophet III made an outstanding catch in right center with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning off the bat of Nolan Caira to secure the win and the league title for Cypress as the Centurions held on for a 5-3 victory at Pacifica.

If Prophet III didn’t make the catch, the ball would have rolled to the fence and the Mariners would have cleared the bases and been victorious. However, Prophet III made a fully extended catch and was quickly mobbed by his teammates as the Centurions held on to win.

Cypress (18-9, 9-1) has won or tied for the league title in every season since 2013, with the exception of 2020 when a league champion was not crowned due to the pandemic.

“It’s everybody’s dream to make a play like that in a game like this,” said Prophet III, who Weber said hadn’t played the outfield until two weeks ago. “I’ve been bouncing around a bit, but It feels awesome to win a game like this and I did if for every one of my guys.”

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Pacifica made a valiant comeback effort and had the crowd and the players thoroughly entrenched on every pitch in the last inning but came up a bit short.

Trailing 5-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, the Mariners got their first five batters on base and appeared to be on the verge of a miraculous comeback win. 

Jayson Juarez reached base on an infield error to start the Mariners rally. Joshua Pearman followed with a double to right center, giving Pacifica runners at second and third with no outs. Cypress coach John Weber replaced starting pitcher Aiden Franco with relief hurler Garret Rodriguez.

Victor Cardona was awarded first base on a catcher’s interference call to load the bases. Connor Chavez was then hit by a pitch to force in a run and cut the lead to 5-2. Christian Tharasena drew a walk to score another run and trim the lead to 5-3 with still no outs in the inning. Weber then replaced Rodriguez with seldom-used reliever Connor Artasere, who had only pitched seven innings this season.

However, Artasere worked calmly and struck out Aiden Marguez and Jacob Zanaboni and then went to a full count against Caira before Prophet III saved the game for the Centurions with his heroic catch in right field.

“I was nervous until I threw my first strike and then I settled down,” said Artasere, who had played first base in the game until he was summoned to pitch. “I kept throwing fastballs, and I knew my defense would execute behind me.”

Cypress took advantage of two Mariners throwing errors and Justin Tillar launched his fourth homer of the season to highlight the third inning and give the Centurions a 4-0 lead.

“My coach told me to look for something low and ‘do what you do’ and I was fortunate to get a good swing on it,” said Tillar. “I knew I hit it well and when I was half way down the first base line I knew it was gone. To hit a homerun like that in a game like this is like out of a movie.”

The Mariners (18-8, 8-2) loaded the bases in the bottom half of the third but could only muster one run following a bases loaded walk to Caira, cutting the lead to 4-1. The Centurions added a run in the fourth inning. Spencer Kwon reached second base on another Pacifica error, moved to third on a sacrifice and scored on a wild pitch to up the Cypress lead to 5-1.

In the fourth and fifth innings, each of the Centurions infielders (first baseman Connor Artasere, second baseman Jake De Laquli, shortstop Jackson Pohl, third baseman Garret Rodriguez and pitcher Aiden Franco) made spectacular defensive gems to foil Mariners rallies.

“This win means everything in the world,” said Pohl. “We’ve come a long way this season and it’s an amazing feeling to win our league.”

It appeared Cypress had gained the momentum and was on their way to victory.

However, Pacifica displayed the heart of a champion with their seventh inning rally and nearly completed an unlikely comeback.    

Weber said his team will learn from this game and he was proud on how his players held on.

“We got an early lead and maybe we got a little comfortable and lost a little focus, but we learned we can’t take anything for granted,” said Weber. “Connor and Greg with little experience in the positions where they were playing came into a stressful situation and came through. I think Connor pitched maybe seven innings this season and Greg has only been playing the outfield for two weeks and God Bless them both.”

Despite the disappointment, Pacifica Coach Mike Caira said his team will be ready for the CIF playoffs.

“What we wanted from this series was to earn a home playoff game,” said Caira. “More than likely we’ll be on the road somewhere. It didn’t come down to the last play, we had opportunities earlier in the game but we didn’t capitalize. This is a tough loss but our guys showed character and will mature from this experience and continue to grow.”

Pacifica starting pitcher Ayden Valdez threw six innings and gave up only two hits but was victimized by four errors. Aiden Franco started for the Centurions and gave up three hits before being lifted in the seventh inning.  

The pairings for the CIF playoffs will be announced on Monday and round one games will start next week.

—Tom Connolly, For OC Sports Zone