A thought occurred just after the May 24 North Coast Section Division 4 semifinal between Piedmont High School and Justin-Siena-Napa ended – what if we could have an entire season of these two teams playing each other?
Justin-Siena had just survived a furious rally by the Highlanders in the top of the seventh, 11-10. Add in the regular season battle between the teams, won by Piedmont by a score of 12-8, and the teams scored 41 runs in 14 innings.
“It was definitely a fight and that’s all you can ask for, a great game,” Highlander Ryan McConathy said. “When we played these guys the first time, it was the same way. We got up big and then they came back and then we got up again and they answered back.”
Said Piedmont’s Markos Lagios, “Both teams can swing it. Both teams have great pitching as well. It’s always intense when we play these guys. I think we both always just have it on for the game.”
With the win, the Braves (15-9) advanced to the NCS championship game at Arcata on May 27. Piedmont finished the season 14-11, although that record did not reflect the quality of play in the playoffs. The Highlanders beat Branson-Ross 4-3 in 12 innings over two days, upset the top seeded Fortuna 5-2, and then went back-and-forth with the season on the line against Justin-Siena.
“Playoffs are just so much more intense,” McConathy said. “Especially being a senior, having the season on the line, everything’s just played on a higher level.
“Today we finally met our match. I feel this was more like a championship game for us. It was a good team. We played our hearts out.”
Justin-Siena got on the board first when Dalen Tinsley doubled in Trevor L’Esperance in the bottom of the first. Braves starter Luke Giusto gave it back in the second, walking in a run before getting out of a bases loaded, one out jam. Both teams had multiple opportunities to score more runs, and Piedmont ended up leaving 14 on base in the game, including the bases loaded three times.
Things fell apart for the Highlanders in the bottom of the fifth as Justin-Siena put five on the board. Jason Gray singled in one run and an error brought in a second. Tinsley then cleared the bases with a double and it was 6-1.
Piedmont put together its own big inning in the fourth, scoring six and taking the lead. McConathy led off with a double and Brandon Dicke tripled him home to get it started. One out later, Diego Delventhal singled in Dicke. Michael Aikawa doubled and Lagios drew a walk to load the bases. Peter Krumins walked to bring in a run and make it 6-4. With two outs, Will Parker hit a sharp one-hopper to shortstop that took a bad bounce over Braedon Butler for a two-run single to tie the game. Krumins later scored on a passed ball to give the Highlanders the lead.
It was short-lived. In the bottom of the inning, Everet Johnson doubled in two to put the Braves back on top. Piedmont got runners to second and third in the fifth, but could not score. Justin-Siena scored another run in the bottom of the fifth to make it 9-7.
With one out in the top of the sixth, Parker singled and McConathy was hit by a pitch. With two out, John Olsen drew a walk to load the bases. But Cesar Evina was able to get Delventhal to pop out to end the threat.
The Braves scored two more insurance runs in the bottom of the inning. Giusto singled in one and Emrys Davies brought home the other on a sacrifice fly. Things looked bleak for the Highlanders when Aikawa led off the seventh by popping out.
One of the Justin-Siena coaches remarked to a reporter early in the game how impressed he was with the way Piedmont never quit. The Highlanders proved him prescient. Lagios and Krumins drew walks. Dimitri Papahadjopoulos then reached on an error, bringing home Lagios. Parker walked to load the bases, and Drew Sangiacomo was summoned in place of Evina. He struck out McConathy for the second out.
However, Dicke walked to cut the lead to 11-9. Sangiacomo then hit Liam Campbell with a pitch to force in another run. Delventhal came to the plate with a chance to tie or put Piedmont up.
It was not to be. He grounded to shortstop Butler, who double-clutched but got the force play at second.
Parker finished 2-for-3 with a run scored and two RBI. Dicke was 2-for-4 with a run scored and two RBI. For Justin-Siena, Tinsley was 2-for-4 with 4 RBI. Johnson got the win, pitching 1 2/3 innings of shutout ball. Olsen took the loss, allowing three runs in three innings.
Highlander coach Eric Olson said the team was prepared for the playoffs because it was playing bigger schools in the West Alameda County Conference as well as in nonleague play. The roster was a little short – during the regular season, there were 11 on both the varsity and junior varsity teams, but the younger players contributed during the playoff run.
“I love the 22 guys we got,” Highlanders coach Eric Olson said. “I wish I had a couple more of them, but I love the guys we got. We’re going to be really good for a long time.”
The seniors, including Aikawa and McConathy, were keys as well.
“Mike’s kind of a benchmark guy that we’ll talk about for a long time,” Olson said. “If you want to be a dude, you’ve got to be like Mike Aikawa. He’s an irreplaceable guy.”
McConathy came back from Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch until midseason.
“Ryan could have shut it down and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to come back and hit and I’m just going to play left field,” Olson said. “But he’s like, ‘No, coach, I’m wanna pitch for you.’ And that’s the unselfishness that we need. He did that for these guys.”
Said McConathy, “I love these guys to death. I’ve been playing with a bunch of them since I was 6. We’re like a big family. I just wanted to do whatever I could to get back to full health and contribute to the team however I can.”
Photos by Damin Esper