The first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 baseball playoffs Thursday evoked sadness, shock and disbelief.
And that was just inside The Signal’s office.
Baseball season over for every Foothill League team in mid-May? Unthinkable. No team headed for a semifinal? No way. Not even a quarterfinal? You’re kidding.
Of course, this is reality in Division 1, arguably the toughest high school baseball bracket in the country. It’s where good teams come to die or get lucky. Where great teams must play great to advance.
Our valley and this writer, it turns out, were spoiled in 2015 and 2016 – Thursday providing a dark backdrop against which the previous two seasons shine all the brighter.
The Foothill League won’t advance a team to the semifinals every year. It certainly won’t produce three quarterfinalists and two semifinalists like it did in 2015.
Or two quarterfinalists and one semifinalist like in 2016.
“Playoffs are tough,” said Valencia coach Mike Killinger, whose team lost 5-2 to Dos Pueblos of Goleta on Thursday. “Anybody who thinks everybody should be getting to the quarters and semis every year is crazy.”
Of course, we knew this all along. Before Hart, Saugus and Valencia made the quarters in 2015, three teams from the current Foothill League had never made it there in the same year.
Before Hart and Saugus played in the semifinals three days later, there’d never been an All-SCV penultimate game.
From 2005 – when the Foothill League moved to Division 1 – to 2014, only one team made a semi.
The point: Deep postseason runs aren’t like death and taxes.
“I don’t think that’s reality to hope for that every year,” said coach Casey Burrill, whose Wildcats fell 3-1 to El Dorado of Placentia on Thursday. “Certainly the goal of our league is to go as far as we possibly can.”
2015 seemed to stretch the realm of possibility.
There was the Mission League Massacre when Hart, Valencia and Saugus all beat teams from the vaunted league in Division 1’s first round.
There was Hart’s upset of national No. 1 JSerra Catholic of San Juan Capistrano, sending the Indians into a dogpile on Bud Murray Field and onto the semis.
There was Hart and Saugus meeting at College of the Canyons in front of 1,500 people – with a trip to the finals on the line.
There was Hart catcher Robert “Boots” Reeves’ 10th-inning home run that earned a trip to the ship and ended the wildest two weeks of Saugus coach John Maggiora’s career.
“I joked with players that I don’t think I slept three hours a night for two straight weeks,” Maggiora says. “You’re either on a high or busy being anxious for the next one.”
It was worth it, though, as Maggiora looked up from COC’s third-base dugout to see more and more fans on the first-base-side berm.
“It seemed to be 10 deep by extra innings,” Maggiora said.
Hart needed extra innings in the opening round of the 2016 D1 playoffs to beat Millikan of Long Beach, 3-2.
In the second round, it needed a walk-off home run from who other than Reeves to slip by Corona and into the quarters.
On the other half of the bracket, West Ranch beat Norco by one run in the second round. It did the same to nationally ranked El Toro in Lake Forest in the quarters when ace Timmy Josten escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh.
“You look back at those games and we had big breaks all the way through,” Burrill said. “We had luck on our side, and big hits came at the right time, big pitches came at the right time. Certainly, it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Maybe that’s it. Foothill League teams were good this year. But in an otherworldly bracket, Hart (which lost Thursday to Vista Murrieta on a walk-off, two-run single), Valencia and West Ranch each needed a little luck.
I know for a fact we were lucky to watch as much postseason baseball as we did in 2015 and 2016. And I hope to be that lucky again.