When the Palo Alto played St. Francis to open the 2011 baseball season and then Mitty in Game 4, losing to both West Catholic Athletic League powers, something was missing in the Vikings' lineup.
"We were still finding out our identity as a team, because we were finding out what players were capable to do what," said Paly coach Erick Raich. "When we played those teams our lineup was completely different."
Missing in the 3-2 loss to St. Francis and the 6-3 setback to Mitty was junior shortstop Austin (Ozzie) Braff. He had transferred from St. Francis and wouldn't be eligible for another two weeks as the Vikings started out 4-3 without him.
Since then, Palo Alto has gone 20-6. Braff is hitting .413 with 31 hits and 21 RBI. Among the starters, he is second on the team in all three categories to his brother, senior T.J., who is hitting .449 with 40 hits and 42 RBI.
To say that Palo Alto is different than when the season started would be correct. The Vikings (24-9) have won 13 of their past 15 games and will take plenty of momentum into their Central Coast Section Division I opener on Wednesday (4 p.m.) against visiting Monta Vista (15-11) of Cupertino, the No. 14 seed in the 16-team division.
The Matadors, from the lower SCVAL El Camino Division, are the first step for Palo Alto in its quest to win the CCS title many believed it should have won last year when the Vikings went 29-4 and fell in the Division II finals.
Division I will offer many more challenges for No. 3-seeded Palo Alto, including a possible date with No. 2 Mitty (24-5-1) in the semifinals next Wednesday and a hoped-for shot at No. 1 St. Francis (25-5) in the title game on May 28 at San Jose Municipal.
"There are potential chances to play some rematch games," Raich said. "However, we have got to get prepared for Monta Vista because they are a quality team and this is a single-elimination tournament. We're just going to take every pitch, inning and game at a time.
"We don't really care which division we got designated to," Raich added. "In reality, there are very good teams in both D1 and D2. However, all we can control is how we play the game of baseball. If we throw strikes, play catch and have great disciplined at-bats, then we did our job as a team and we just have to let the chips fall where they fall."
On paper, Monta Vista appears as no great threat to Palo Alto. The Matadors beat only one team that the Vikings did (Cupertino) and lost to Mountain View and Homestead of the De Anza Division by a combined 16-9 while Paly topped those squads twice each by a combined score of 36-0.
Monta Vista is averaging 5.3 runs. 7.1 hits and 2.0 errors per game while Paly is averaging 6.8, 9.0 and 1.4, respectively. The Matadors are 6-5 on the road while the Vikings are 13-4 at home.
Perhaps the most telling stat is that Monta Vista is hitting .276 as a team while Palo Alto is ripping it at .349 per game.
The Palo Alto-Monta Vista winner will advance to play the winner of No. 11 Serra and No. 6 Homestead on Saturday. The Vikings have a combined three wins over those teams this season. The semifinals on May 25 at San Jose Muni likely offer Mitty while St. Francis is a heavy favorite to reach the finals.
Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep also will open their postseason on Wednesday in CCS Division III action.
The No. 3-seeded and defending champion Knights (22-5) will host No. 14 Scotts Valley 13-13) at 4 p.m., while the No. 7 Gators (16-11) entertain No. 10 Harbor (10-12) at the same time.
Menlo hasn't face Scotts Valley this season, but the visitors did lose to Gunn and the Knights beaten the Titans, 9-1. Should Menlo advance as expected, it will take on the winner of No. 11 Soledad (18-9) and No. 6 Sacred Heart Cathedral (17-11), a team Menlo beat in the semifinals last year.
The semifinals will be Tuesday at San Jose Municipal, where No. 2 Carmel could be waiting. Menlo beat Carmel this season, 15-6, back on March 3. The Division III championship game will be May 28 at San Jose Muni at 1 p.m.
Sacred Heart Prep would like to be there, but the Gators would have to go through Carmel (Saturday's quarterfinals) and then Menlo to get there.
Harbor provides an interesting matchup with its averages of 5.4, 8.1 and 1.1 for runs, hits and errors. SHP averages 5.8 runs, 8.3 hits and 1.6 errors. The teams' only common opponent is Half Moon Bay. Harbor won, 5-3, but Sacred Heart Prep lost to the Cougars, 5-3.
Bo Sakowski leads the Gators with a .375 batting average and tops the team with 27 hits. Mike Covell has 25 hits with a .321 average while Cal Baloff is hitting .339 with 19 hits and 17 RBI. Fellow senior Tomas O'Donnell has a team-leading 18 RBI and five home runs for the Gators.