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Lowell holds off Ripon Christian in NorCal semifinal
Lowell-Ripon Christian baseball
Ripon Christian pitcher Eli Terpsma makes a diving catch in the infield for the first out of the seventh inning Thursday against Lowell. GARY JENSEN/

Ripon Christian’s comeback magic wore off Thursday in the NorCal semifinals.

Trailing by four runs, the top-seeded Knights rallied for three in the bottom of the sixth but ultimately came up short against No. 5 Lowell, 7-6. The Cardinals (17-10) will face No. 2 University on Saturday in an all-San Francisco showdown for the California Interscholastic Federation Division V Northern Regional championship.

Lowell scored five unanswered runs to take the lead for good. Four came in the top of the sixth inning, aided by a throwing error leading to two runs on a force attempt at the plate. Jeremy Tam (2 for 4) followed with a two-run single to cap the rally. Designated hitter Thomas McGrath earlier ignited the rally with a one-out double to the right-center fence.

“We were just one hit short, but in a one-run game, little mistakes will add up,” Ripon Christian coach John de Visser said. “If we stay out of that big inning and make one play, it’s a one-run game. Instead, it turns into a crooked inning, and crooked innings will kill you, especially in the playoffs. This whole time we were able to get passed it, but eventually it’s going to get you.”

Ripon Christian (23-7) racked up several of its biggest wins of the season, even a few in the playoffs, by mounting late-inning comebacks. In the opening round of NorCals on Tuesday, amassed 11 runs in the fifth and sixth innings to blast past Firebaugh, 15-7.

The Knights were quick to respond to Lowell’s barrage in the sixth. Luke Crivello was hit by the first pitch, and Micah English followed with a two-run homer to center with an 0-2 count. Grant Sonke then reached on an infield error and scored after Justin Severson’s two-out pop fly was dropped in the outfield.

“Obviously, I didn’t want it to end on that swing,” English said. “I love how these guys fight. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way today.”

Lowell junior Roman Fong was able to finish what he started on the pitcher’s mound. He had a strikeout and induced routine ground balls to the first and second basemen, nothing his only perfect inning of the day in the seventh.

Fong gave up eight hits, two walks and hit one batter while striking out two in his gutty complete game, throwing 95 pitches.

“Not overpowering, but he’s a bulldog, man,” Lowell coach Daryl Semien said. “He’s a competitor. He’s been there for us all year, just like our other pitchers.

“Today, we put together a complete game behind him. We made (defensive) plays and got timely hitting when we needed them. I’ve been asking for a complete game all year, and we finally got it when it counted.”

Fong also had an RBI single in the fifth to tie the game at 3-3. The Cardinals totaled seven hits. Gabriel Leung had a two-out, two-RBI single in the second for the first runs of the game.

Lowell is a longtime baseball power in the San Francisco Section. The Cardinals recently captured their 22nd Section title and eighth in nine seasons, but they’re on the cusp of unprecedented success.

“It’s historic,” Semien said of reaching the final. “I know NorCals has only been around two years, but in the past, we’d play our (San Francisco Section) championship, played a Trans-Bay game) against the Oakland Section champ) and that was it.

“Some of these younger guys have dreamed about playing in a NorCal game, and to be the first San Francisco team in the history of San Francisco high school baseball to win a NorCal game and now two, it’s very huge for our program.”

Lowell’s student population of about 2,800 is much larger than Ripon Christian’s 200, but the Knights have established themselves as a small-school juggernaut in the Sac-Joaquin Section. They made their first NorCal appearance after securing the program’s second Section crown.

For Eli Terpsma, it was another heartbreaking end to a deep postseason run. He was also part of Ripon Christian’s SJS championship football and boys basketball teams that lost in the NorCal finals.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Terpsma said. “I’ve been blessed with great teammates and coaches, and God is the only reason we’re here.”

Terpsma, who had been clutch in long relief this season, was charged with the loss after throwing the final 1 2/3 innings. He did go 2 for 4 with two steals on offense, including a go-ahead solo homer in the third inning.

Crivello started for the second straight game but got deeper in the semifinal, striking out four while giving up five runs on six hits, two walks and a hitter batter over 5 1/3 innings.

Ripon Christian only loses three senior starters — English, Terpsma, infielder Justin Severson — and that’s not including slugging first baseman Jacob Kowes who missed the entire season with knee injuries.

“I’ve been coaching for 23 years, and this was the most fun I’ve ever had and not just because they’re good,” de Visser said.  “They’re great young men, they really are. That’s the most successful class in the history of this school. Six Section titles (across multiple sports), and they got us further than any other group has.

“We were one big hit away from going to the NorCal finals. It’s baseball. If you don’t play great, this is where you end up. I love these guys, and I can’t wait to run it back next year. It was like I was telling them; it’s supposed to hurt this much. If it doesn’t, then what are we doing?”