By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
Sometimes, just getting to a championship game is more difficult than winning it. The Palo Alto and Menlo School baseball teams will gladly test that theory.
Both squads probably felt they were playing for Central Coast Section titles during their semifinal games this week. The No. 3-seeded Vikings faced No. 2 Mitty while the No. 3-seeded Knights took on No. 2 Carmel.
On paper, Paly and Menlo were underdogs. Paper, however, can be crumpled up and thrown away and that's exactly how the Vikings and Knights treated their respective opponents.
On Tuesday, Menlo rallied from six runs down in the top of the sixth to tie its Division III game with Carmel, before finally claiming a 9-8 victory with a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth.
On Wednesday, Palo Alto jumped out to a four-run lead in the first inning and played solidly on defense while showing defending champion Mitty, 5-2, the in a Division I showdown.
On Saturday, Menlo (25-5) will seek its fifth section title against No. 8 Santa Cruz (15-14) at San Jose Municipal Stadium at 4 p.m. Upon that conclusion, Palo Alto (27-9) will seek its first section title against No. 5 San Benito (22-8) at 7 p.m.
Both teams were in similar situations last season as they advanced to section finals, even though both beat lower-seeded teams in the semifinals. Menlo was seeded third and faced No. 16 Hillsdale in the finals, winning 8-2. Palo Alto was seeded No. 1 in Division II and faced No. 6 Burlingame in the finals, but dropped a 7-4 decision.
Both Menlo coach Craig Schoof and Paly coach Erick Raich believe the tough semifinals provided good tuneups.
"I do think it was good for us for a couple of reasons," Schoof said. "One, things had been pretty easy for us in the first two rounds with 8-0 and 10-0 victories, and that game (against Carmel) was a reality check. Two, it proved we can come back no matter what. We will not relinquish the title without a fight and the seniors will lead the way."
Raich is probably thinking the same way, especially after facing Mitty's top two pitchers, Brett Fuller and Tyler Davis.
"We didn't approach the game last night as our championship," Raich said. "We just wanted to make sure we played our game of baseball and, if we got beat, we could live with that. Our game plan was to put pressure on Mitty offensively and defensively, make them earn everything they get."
Menlo was favored against Hillsdale last season and proved the seedings correct. Saturday's matchup with Santa Cruz may be a little different.
"As for being the favorite, not so sure about that," Schoof said. "They are from an 'A' League, have played very tough competition, are on a roll, and we will be facing their ace. Watched them the other night (a 12-1 semifinal win over Half Moon Bay), not sure why they were 12-14 coming into the tournament."
Palo Alto also was favored in last year's title game against Burlingame for a number of reasons, but came up short. The Vikings have to guard against any letdown on Saturday.
"As for San Benito, they are a very good team and from what I hear, they are bringing Darin Gillies back to pitch from a wrist injury, and he is very good. We need to have another great two days of practice and get in the mind frame for a dogfight of a game."
Raich and his players probably were expecting a dogfight with Mitty on Wednesday as the Monarchs came in ranked No. 20 in the state while the No. 3-seeded Vikings were No. 41, according to MaxPreps.
When Palo Alto scored four runs in the first inning, those rankings went out the window along with Mitty's hopes of defending its title as the Vikings went on to post its 5-2 victory.
Saturday will mark the first all-public school Division I final since 2004, when Wilcox defeated Palo Alto, 5-4, and only the third in the past 21 years. Monta Vista beat Leland in the Division 4A title game in 1990.
Menlo, meanwhile, will be attempting to win back-to-back titles since first accomplishing that in 1988 and '89. The Knights have a seven-game win streak, outscoring the competition by 78-18 during the streak.
Schoof had plenty of standouts on Tuesday, with junior Freddy Avis and freshman Mikey Diekroeger being two of them. Avis delivered a clutch two-run double to cap a six-run sixth inning and tie the game, 8-8, and force extra innings. The Knights loaded the bases in the ninth and Diekroeger brought home Phil Anderson with a sacrifice fly as Menlo escaped with a hard-fought win over Carmel (26-4).