VISALIA — College of the Sequoias' baseball team not only captured the Central Valley Conference championship, the Giants have run away with it.
With a dramatic 2-1 victory in 11 innings over Taft on May 18, Sequoias clinched the top prize available to it during a season delayed, modified and shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pinch-hitter Vincent Estrada (Corcoran High) set off a joyous celebration with his walk-off run-scoring single in the bottom of the 11th, giving the Giants their first CVC title since 2014.
Sequoias (20-4 overall, 19-3 CVC) went on to win three more conference games last week to pull even further away from the pack. And the Giants wrap up CVC action by playing at second-place Merced (14-10, 12-8) on May 25 and hosting the Blue Devils on May 26. Both games are scheduled to start at 2 p.m.
"I'm really happy for the guys," Giants coach Jody Allen said. "Nobody could have envisioned over a year ago that they'd get to dogpile and win a championship. It was exciting for the guys and they had a lot of fun with it."
In an ironic twist to the title-clinching game, Sequoias, which leads the state in team batting average at .360, was held to two hits through seven innings against a Taft team that entered the game 1-19 overall and 1-15 in the CVC.
But Nate Gilson (El Diamante) snapped a scoreless tie when he opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a single, went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Davis Beavers (Redwood), advanced to third on a ground out by Michael McKernan (Mt. Whitney) and scored on a wild pitch.
Taft tied it in the top of the ninth on R.J. Munoz's two-out RBI single.
In the 11th, Payton Allen (Golden West) was placed on second base under the tiebreaker rule, Andrew Valdez (El Diamante) was walked intentionally and Donte Valdez (Redwood) walked to load the bases ahead of Estrada, who singled home Allen.
The Giants received their latest impressive pitching performances from Cristian Garcia (Hanford), Anthony Torres (Exeter) and James Freisen (Immanuel-Reedley) against Taft.
Garcia started and pitched five shutout innings while allowing three hits.
Torres worked three scoreless innings while allowing one hit.
Freisen (1-1) overcame giving up a run in his first inning of work to shut Taft out over the final two to earn the win.
"Our pitching staff has been the unsung hero of this team," Allen said. "We've had so many people step up in different ways. We were counting pitches, not innings, with these guys. These guys have taken the ball every time asked. They'd say they were good to go for however many innings we needed that day."
Sequoias’ offense was back in form May 19 during a 14-2 win over Taft, getting home runs from Payton Allen, Flavio Perez Jr. (Hanford) and Gilson to power a 14-hit attack.
Perez and Gilson each hit two-run shots in the Giants' five-run third inning, and Allen, the coach’s son. added a solo shot in the fourth.
Gilson finished with three hits and three RBIs. Allen, Perez, Donte Valdez and Elijah Cortez (Central-Fresno) had two hits apiece.
Tyce Ochs (Golden West) started and earned the win by allowing one earned run over three innings. Relievers Austin Fleck (Central), Chance Watson (El Diamante), Zachariah McCorvey (El Diamante), Noah Munoz (Tulare Western) and Spencer Rogers (Highland-Bakersfield) combined to allow one run over the final six innings.
"Our offense has been terrific. I don't think I've ever had a team lead the state in hitting," Jody Allen said. "We have excelled up and down the lineup. Everyone has contributed. We've had some of our better hitters have bad days, and we still score 10, 12 runs. It's really been a team effort."
Sequoias finished last week with a doubleheader sweep of Reedley (12-12, 9-11) on May 21.
A two-run single by McKernan in the bottom of the eighth sent the Giants to a 15-5, walk-off win in the first game.
Donte Valdez helped the Giants pull away with a two-run homer in the first and a grand slam in the third. Cortez added a three-run double in the fourth.
McKernan and Payton Allen each enjoyed four-hit days during Sequoias' 19-hit attack.
That was more than enough support for pitchers Riley Creech (El Diamante) and Fleck.
Creech (3-0) earned the win while giving up one earned run on three hits over six innings. He struck out six. Fleck allowed one earned run over the final two innings.
Sequoias rallied from behind to beat Reedley 7-4 in the second game.
The Giants trailed 3-0 through four innings, but got one back in the fifth when Payton Allen scored on Donte Valdez's fielder's choice and went ahead 4-3 later in the inning on Cortez's three-run homer.
The Tigers tied it 4-4 in the sixth before Sequoias went ahead for good in the seventh on an RBI double by Cortez, a run-scoring single by T.J. Martinez (Tulare Western) and a wild pitch that allowed Andrew Valdez to score.
Torres (5-0) pitched 2 2/3 innings of perfect relief for the win, while Freisen pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his state-leading seventh save.
The conference title was especially rewarding considering all the team has been through over the past 15 months.
The Giants were off to one of the best starts in school history at 18-4 overall and 6-3 in the CVC last year when play was suspended in March and the season was eventually canceled by the California Community College Athletic Association as the novel coronavirus began to cause severe illness and death all around the world.
The CCCAA delayed the start of the 2020-2021 athletic season because of Covid-19 safety concerns and put in place return to play scenarios tied to state guidance with the virus.
When the CCCAA approved the return of athletics, only 52 of the 88 baseball-playing community colleges in the state elected to play in a season that won't have a state championship tournament, or count against a player's athletic clock.
"It's crazy to try to envision what took place. You didn't know what you had, who would come out and who wouldn't come out," Jody Alllen said. "There was such a depression and despair in society. I can't tell you how many times guys asked if we were ever going to have a season. And I'd say 'yeah, I think we will. And don't you want to be prepared?' I'm so grateful these guys got to experience some normal baseball games, and being college guys and enjoying the sport they grew up loving."
Jody Allen credited Sequoias' administration, led by President/Superintendent Brent Calvin and Athletics Director Brent Davis, with giving not only his baseball team, but the Giants' football, cross country, men's basketball, women's basketball, women's volleyball, softball, swimming and diving, track and field and girls tennis teams as well with a chance to regain some normalcy after a tumultuous year.
"They really paved the way for this in so many ways," Jody Allen said. "They created opportunities for these guys to get out there with the testing and social distancing. They put in the hard work so these men and women could go out and experience athletics.
"Frankly, many of the other schools didn't put in the effort. Brent Calvin and Brent Davis and the people around them put in the hard work. They drove this thing."
It was the fifth conference title of Jody Allen's 28 seasons at Sequoias, and perhaps the most difficult to accomplish considering the circumstances.
In addition to the Covid-19 protocols, the Giants won the title while playing more games against traditional CVC contenders Fresno City, Merced and Reedley (six this season compared to four) and playing four-game weeks (compared to three) with Friday doubleheaders as the CVC tried to schedule a meaningful number of games over two months despite two colleges -- Porterville and West Hills-Coalinga -- opting out of the season.
"This one by far was the most difficult to come by," Jody Allen said. "It was such a rewarding experience. From everything we went through to having the personal experience of having my son on the team. This is a pretty special team."
Sequoias has the most wins (20) and the third-best winning percentage (.833) in the state heading into its final week of action, which will wrap up with non-conference home games against Cerro Coso at 2:30 p.m. May 28 and noon May 29.