A tale of two finales:
Menlo celebrates, Paly doesn't
It was two championship games with two championship teams. Both came in with substantial winning streaks and plenty of talent to extend those streaks for one more game. Both were favored to win.
When all was said and done last weekend at San Jose Municipal Stadium, the Menlo School baseball team celebrated and Palo Alto did not. The Knights won the Central Coast Section Division III title with an 8-2 win over Hillsdale and Palo Alto fell to Burlingame, 7-4, in the Division II finale.
It was an afternoon of wonderment and bewilderment, all in the space of a few hours.
For Menlo, the day provided a day of one-upmanship.
Danny Diekroeger has always been in the shadow of his older brother Kenny, even though the two are only a year apart. It was that way when the two played together for three years at Menlo School and it probably will be that way when Danny joins Kenny on the Stanford baseball team next season.
Danny, however, temporarily has stepped out of that shadow and has something even Kenny can't brag about.
"All my life it was Kenny's team that was supposed to win the title," Danny said. "He did win the (CCS) basketball championship, but I have the baseball. That's the one that counts."
Menlo was supposed to win a CCS crown last season, which was Kenny's senior year. Unfortunately for the Knights, Kenny suffered a late-season injury that derailed those plans after he helped Menlo win the CCS Division IV hoop crown.
Given the chance to one-up his brother, Danny helped make the team's annual goal come true.
"At least every year I've been on varsity, we've set as our goal to win our last game," he said. "And we did that. It's pretty amazing."
And now Danny has bragging rights over Kenny.
"I'll remind him all the time," Danny said.
Menlo's victory on Saturday will be worth repeating as the No. 3-seeded Knights (25-6) finished their season on a 14-game win streak with just another typical performance.
"It kind of typifies our season," Menlo coach Craig Schoof said of the victory. "It wasn't our best game, but we did all the things we needed to do. We're a confident bunch and rightfully so."
Saturday's victory seemed almost a foregone conclusion since Hillsdale (19-12) came in as the final seed in the 16-team tournament. In a battle between the two Knights, however, it was Hillsdale that struck first and grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first.
None of the Menlo players, however, were worried at that point. They had overcome No. 15 Sacred Heart Cathedral with two runs in the bottom of the seventh in a semifinal on Wednesday and had knocked a first-team All-West Catholic Athletic League pitcher (Anthony Villamore) out of the game.
"That was big time," Diekroeger said. "That really set us up. We had to work hard for every run in that game."
Based on that effort, Diekroeger told his teammates before Saturday's game that if things don't start out well, don't worry.
"No matter what happens," he told them, "just stay focused."
His teammates took that to heart and bounced back quickly. After leaving two runners in scoring position in the first, Menlo struck in the second as Freddy Avis walked with one out and Robert Wickers was safe on a error. Senior Jackson Badger then stepped to the plate and delivered perhaps his biggest hit of the season, a two-run double that gave Menlo the lead for good.
"I'm so happy for Jackson Badger," Schoof said. "He struggled at the plate all season and hit under .200. To come up with the biggest hit of the game . . . it was great to see that happen. After Badger's hit, it was like now we can relax."
Hillsdale, however, didn't go away and loaded the bases in the top of the fourth. With two out, Hillsdale's Armando Fajardo hit a high chopper to the edge of the infield grass that Diekroeger charged, short-hopped and threw out the runner to end the final threat.
"That was the play of the game," Schoof said. "Then we come back and score five."
That made it 7-1 and gave the win to Avis (8-3), who threw 4 2/3 excellent innings while battling a cold. Jake Bruml came in with the bases loaded and one run in the fifth, but recorded a strikeout to end the inning. He then slammed the door over the last two innings to earn his first save of the year to go along with the clutch victory in Wednesday's semifinal over Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Schoof admitted that he didn't have a closer until this past week. Bruml will return next season along with Avis and fellow sophomore Jake Batchelder to give the Knights an excellent rotation.
"We'll be good next year," Schoof said. "The juniors will rise up, and we'll be battling."
Much like the Knights did this season, led by its five seniors — Badger, Matt Crowder, Diekroeger, Clay Robbins and Dustin Williams. They leave the program with three straight seasons of more than 20 wins for the first time in school history; 50 wins over their junior and senior campaigns, and a CCS title — Menlo's first since 2004.
CCS Division II
It was not supposed to end this way, not after the sensational season compiled by the Palo Alto baseball team. Everything pointed to so much more than a disappointing and frustrating loss in the finals.
Palo Alto came in on a 24-game winning streak. The Vikings were seeded No. 1 and had a 29-3 record that had established a record for a school in existence for more than 100 years.
Paly had been without a section title since 1927 and never had claimed a CCS crown. After having four coaches over a five-year period and surviving turmoil and losing records, it was time to get rid of the negative and be rewarded with the positive.
But, perhaps, that's only in the movies — despite Paly's rags-to-riches storyline this season. The good guy did not get the girl and ride off into the sunset in this one.
"I'm disappointed," said Palo Alto first-year coach Erick Raich, "because the seniors deserved to go out with a championship."
That championship, however, went to No. 6 seed Burlingame as the Panthers ruined the Vikings' storybook season. Burlingame finished 24-6-1, winning its second CCS title in school history, while Paly finished 29-4.
"We'll win our CCS championship some day," Raich promised. "We don't need a CCS trophy to be champions."
Raich said his players proved that this season when they took on a new coach and responded well to his ideas and work ethic. Prior to Saturday, the only three losses were to Wilcox, Willow Glen and CCS Division I champ Mitty, one of the best teams in the nation.
Palo Alto went 14-0 to win the SCVAL De Anza Division title for the first time since 1994. The Vikings won the league playoff tourney and earned the No. 1 CCS seed for the first time ever.
"We accomplished a lot this season," Raich said. "We got everything but the trophy."