Ripon Christian strung together bunts, bashed three-run hits, aggressively ran the bases, made circus catches on defense and got a much-needed lockdown pitching effort in long relief on Tuesday.
“This was a fun baseball game,” John de Visser said.
It was another day at the park for the Knights and their longtime coach.
The California Interscholastic Federation Division V Northern Regional opener with visiting Firebaugh is a repeat of many of their biggest moments of the season, as they rallied for 11 unanswered runs in the fifth and sixth innings for an historic 15-7 victory.
“This being the first in school history, it’s a remarkable feeling,” junior center fielder Grant Sonke said.
Ripon Christian (23-7) is in the NorCal tournament for the first time, and Sonke rose to the occasion. He powered the comeback with a go-ahead, bases-clearing double in the fifth inning, then crushed a back-breaking three-run homer in sixth. Sonke finished 2 for 4 with a walk, two runs and six RBIs.
“Coach gave me the honor of letting me swing,” Sonke said. “I knew that we could still bunt it, but he let me swing it and I was excited to be able to do something with it.”
The home run capped the late barrage for the top-seeded Knights, who executed five bunts in the sixth inning leading up to Sonke’s jack.
Ripon Christian led 4-0 after the first inning thanks to four walks followed by Micah English’s three-run double.
No. 8 Firebaugh (17-17) answered with a six-run third inning aided by two errors and was ahead 7-4 through four innings.
It was a stunning shift in momentum for the Eagles from Fresno County. They were missing five seniors — including standout infielder/pitcher Isaiah Leyva — who opted to join their classmates for Grad Nite festivities.
“We have five seniors at Grad Nite, and nothing against them, there are other schools doing a similar thing,” Firebaugh coach Alex Gutierrez said. “We had an opportunity to compete and the kids came out and gave it their all.
“Our Nos. 1-2 pitchers went the distance for us the last four games, and they’re both seniors,” he added. “The three pitchers that threw today haven’t pitched in over a month, but they had the opportunity and they’re expected to perform. In our program, these kids are developed. We’re a small school, but we expect to work hard and play hard.”
Firebaugh starter Payton Garcia did well to bounce back from his shaky first inning and lasted into the fifth, but he gave up a leadoff double to Dustin Hoekstra, an infield single to Luke Crivello and a walk to English as his pitch count vaulted over 100.
David Koolhaas kept belted a two-out, RBI single, setting up Sonke’s big double that pushed the Knights ahead, 8-7.
In the sixth, de Visser employed small-ball tactics to pad the lead.
Eli Terpsma got the Knights rolling with a leadoff walk and advanced on Hoekstra’s sacrifice bunt. De Visser did not hesitate to continue bunting through the meat of his lineup, as Crivello (2 for 3, two runs), English (two runs, four RBIs), Koolhaas (two RBIS, two runs) and Logan Sauer each drove in a run on successive safety squeezes.
That brought the Knights back to the top of their batting order, and Sonke wasted little time in connecting for his towering shot, swinging at the first offering.
“This is one of the fastest teams I’ve ever had, we can slug it with anybody, we have so many different ways to score and we can come from behind,” de Visser said. “The bunt game was on fire again today, and we can steal bags.
“My guys started to play fast about halfway through. I thought they were a little tight to begin with, I mean, no one has been here before. It’s NorCal. I don’t have any experiences to help them through it. You’re going to show up, and who knows what kind of emotions you’re going to have.”
Crivello was RC’s starting pitcher, and he was replaced 2 2/3 innings. He retired the first seven batters, striking out three of them but also getting some big plays from the defense in the process.
The 6-foot-3 Terpsma caught the first out of the game with a vertical leap on Jimmy Flores’ sharp line drive. Sonke later had a diving catch for the first out of the third inning, robbing Ryan Luna of a hit.
“I saw it and thought, ‘oh shoot, I may be able to get there,’” Sonke said of his catch in the left-center gap. “As I got closer and closer I thought might get this, and so I dove and ended up webbing it. That was pretty exciting.”
Justin Severson also made a great leaping grab at shortstop in the fifth inning, as Terpsma had moved to the mound.
As he has all postseason, Terpsma came through in long relief to earn the win, giving up one unearned run on two hits and no walks over 3 1/3 innings. English put the finishing touches on the combined six-hitter, striking out two in the seventh inning.
Ripon Christian is hopeful that staff ace Hoekstra will be available to pitch in the semifinal Thursday against fifth-seeded Lowell (16-10), which shut out No. 4 Skyline 3-0 on Tuesday. Hoekstra has been limited by soreness on the elbow of his throwing arm.
“I thought Luke Crivello filled up the strike zone extremely well,” de Visser said. “These (strike) zones are going to get tighter and tighter. These are going to be high-level strike zones. You’ve got to cover the plate. You’re not going to get two or three balls off the plate anymore. He had a lot of miss hits early, we just have to make better plays (on defense).
“Eli had to come in, because we have to look at pitch counts. I’m trying to get Hoekstra back, hopefully we get results back from his MRI today, so we can see if we can have him later in the week. This is just how we’re going to get through this. We can’t go multiple, multiple innings — they get less effective the closer they get to 75 (pitches). We just have to get the best pitches we can get out of them and go to the next guy. And the next guy has to pick up the pail and go.”
Second-seeded University (22-8) of San Francisco squares off with No. 3 Etna (20-5-1) in the other semifinal.