Dakota Conners’ first error in Valley Oak League play nearly cost Sierra High.
His next turn in the spotlight might ultimately define his career – and this season for the hard-charging Timberwolves.
The third-year star more than made up for a rare fielding mistake.
Conners drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh inning and then helped turn the game-ending double play as Sierra introduced a new plot twist to the Valley Oak League title chase with a 4-3 victory over Manteca.
Conners reached base four times against Manteca ace Jacob Corn and Leo Soto carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning for the Timberwolves, now positioned to steal the crown from the Buffaloes on the regular season’s final afternoon.
“We’ve been working toward this the whole year. It’s a tight run in the VOL right now, but it all comes down to (today),” Conners said. “We’re coming. We want it and they want it just as bad, so it’s going to be another great game. … These are the kinds of games you live for.”
With Monday’s thrilling victory, Sierra (20-3) set up a winner-take-all showdown with the Buffaloes (20-3) today at Sierra High. Both teams are tied at 12-1 heading into the finale and guaranteed a high seed in the upcoming Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
The only thing up for grabs is the Valley Oak League championship, and its importance to each program cannot be understated.
Sierra spilled out of its dugout following the final out, launching its gloves into the air. The man of the moment – Conners – even posed for pictures.
He deserved the star treatment.
Conners singled twice, scored two runs and even swiped a base for the Timberwolves, who haven’t won a Valley Oak League championship since 2001.
Manteca has waited even longer.
The Buffaloes, the season-long leader in this chase for the crown, haven’t won a VOL championship since 1985.
“We don’t have any time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Manteca skipper Neil MacDannald said. “We have to wake up with a great attitude, confident that we’ll play the game like we have all year.
“We’ve lost two games now that we’ve had nice chances to win. Both games we had remarkable pitching but didn’t play catch. Those are aberrations, those plays we didn’t make (Monday). We’ve been clean all year and we expect no different (today).”
“Clean” defined the first four innings of Soto’s start. Sierra’s little left-hander finished with nine strikeouts.
Ezequiel Diaz broke up the no-hitter with a lead-off double in the fifth. But as he had done all afternoon, Soto appeared to escape danger.
He retired the next two batters and then got Michael Garibay to hit into what appeared to be an inning-ending grounder.
However, Conners skipped his cross-diamond throw for his first blunder in 13 league games.
Manteca would take advantage. Dom Pisano laced a double down the line to cut the deficit to 3-1.
William Reeder followed suit, tying the game with a stand-up, two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Soto struck out Lucas Vaughn to end the inning, but Manteca appeared to have found its swagger.
The dugout bounced and barked throughout the sixth.
“He’s made one error in league play and it was today,” Sierra coach Jack Thomson said of Conners, his sure-handed shortstop. “… That ball opened the door for them, but like a good player, he clutched up when he had another opportunity.”
Conners drove in Vasquez with the eventual game-winning run in the seventh after Vasquez was plunked by Corn to lead off the inning.
Vasquez moved into scoring position on a sac bunt, setting the table for Conners.
Conners dominated the matchup of next-level standouts, lacing a 3-1 fastball back up the middle. Vasquez beat the throw home with a slide, giving Sierra 4-3 lead.
“I had a leverage count,” Conners said. “I was looking for a fastball, middle in. His fastball has a little run to it and I did what I could with it. I stayed short and drove it back up the middle.”
Corn exited the complex a tough-luck loser. The University of Oregon-bound ace went the distance, allowing one earned run on seven hits. He struck out 10, plunked two and walked only one, but was foiled by his defense.
Conners reached on an error in the first inning and scored on Jake Pruitt’s RBI single.
In the third, Vasquez also reached on an error and later made it 2-0 on a passed ball.
Conners walked and advanced to second on Corn’s passed ball. The Cal State East Bay-bound shortstop was awarded home after colliding with Manteca’s Lucas Vaughn near the third-base bag following Kyle Oden’s base hit.
Sierra will start Kyle Oden in today’s championship tussle, while Manteca will counter with Vaughn.
“We’re going to have to come back and recreate (the magic),” Conners said. “They’re going to come with it tomorrow, so we have to come too … just like (Monday).”