Both squads probably felt they were playing for Central Coast Section titles during their semifinal games this week. The No. 3-seeded Vikings faced No. 2 Mitty while the No. 3-seeded Knights took on No. 2 Carmel.
On paper, Paly and Menlo were underdogs. Paper, however, can be crumpled up and thrown away and that's exactly how the Vikings and Knights treated their respective opponents.
On Tuesday, Menlo rallied from six runs down in the top of the sixth to tie its Division III game with Carmel, before finally claiming a 9-8 victory with a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth.
On Wednesday, Palo Alto jumped out to a four-run lead in the first inning and played solidly on defense while showing defending champion Mitty, 5-2, the in a Division I showdown.
On Saturday, Menlo (25-5) will seek its fifth section title against No. 8 Santa Cruz (15-14) at San Jose Municipal Stadium at 4 p.m. Upon that conclusion, Palo Alto (27-9) will seek its first section title against No. 5 San Benito (22-8) at 7 p.m.
Both teams were in similar situations last season as they advanced to section finals, even though both beat lower-seeded teams in the semifinals. Menlo was seeded third and faced No. 16 Hillsdale in the finals, winning 8-2. Palo Alto was seeded No. 1 in Division II and faced No. 6 Burlingame in the finals, but dropped a 7-4 decision.
Both Menlo coach Craig Schoof and Paly coach Erick Raich believe the tough semifinals provided good tuneups.
"I do think it was good for us for a couple of reasons," Schoof said. "One, things had been pretty easy for us in the first two rounds with 8-0 and 10-0 victories, and that game (against Carmel) was a reality check. Two, it proved we can come back no matter what. We will not relinquish the title without a fight — and the seniors will lead the way."
Raich is probably thinking the same way, especially after facing Mitty's top two pitchers, Brett Fuller and Tyler Davis.
"We didn't approach the game last night as our championship," Raich said. "We just wanted to make sure we played our game of baseball and, if we got beat, we could live with that. Our game plan was to put pressure on Mitty offensively and defensively, make them earn everything they get."
Menlo was favored against Hillsdale last season and proved the seedings correct. Saturday's matchup with Santa Cruz may be a little different.
"As for being the favorite, not so sure about that," Schoof said. "They are from an 'A' League, have played very tough competition, are on a roll, and we will be facing their ace. Watched them the other night (a 12-1 semifinal win over Half Moon Bay), not sure why they were 12-14 coming into the tournament."
Palo Alto also was favored in last year's title game against Burlingame for a number of reasons, but came up short. The Vikings have to guard against any letdown on Saturday.
"As for San Benito, they are a very good team and from what I hear, they are bringing Darrin Gilies back to pitch from a wrist injury, and he is very good. We need to have another great two days of practice and get in the mind frame for a dogfight of a game."
Raich and his players probably were expecting a dogfight with Mitty on Wednesday as the Monarchs came in ranked No. 20 in the state while the No. 3-seeded Vikings were No. 41, according to MaxPreps.
When Palo Alto scored four runs in the first inning, those rankings went out the window along with Mitty's hopes of defending its title as the Vikings went on to post its 5-2 victory.
"What a win for the Palo Alto team and community," said Raich, whose team earned the program's fourth trip to the finals and second straight.
It didn't take long for Paly to put itself in position for another title shot. Senior Christoph Bono got the first of his three hits in the first after one was out. Junior Austin Braff walked and both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Senior T.J. Braff was intentionally walked to load the bases for senior Will Glazier, who lofted a sacrifice fly to score Bono. When the relay throw to the plate got past the catcher, Braff also came home for a 2-0 lead.
Senior Drake Swezey walked and stole second, one of five bases the Vikings swiped. That set the stage for junior Jack Witte, who lined a single to right to score Braff and Swezey.
Bono gave Paly a 5-0 lead in the third after getting a leadoff single and stealing second and third before scoring on a wild pitch by Davis.
"Bono had a huge game offensively and, top to bottom, the offense had great at-bats," Raich said.
After that it was all pitching and defense for Palo Alto. Junior Ben Sneider retired the first seven batters he faced and allowed four hits and two runs over 4 1/3 innings. Swezey, a senior, held Mitty scoreless the final 2 2/3 innings.
"We played unbelievable defense and Sneider and Swezey did an unbelievable job of attacking the zone and going right at the Mitty hitters," Raich said.
Austin Braff made two standout plays at shortstop, taking away potential hits in back-to-back innings, while Alec Wong made two nice defensive plays on tough ground balls in the sixth as the Vikings avenged their 6-3 loss to Mitty in the Mike Hazlett Memorial Tournament on Feb. 28. Paly started the season 1-3, but has gone 26-6 since.
Palo Alto will take a five-game win streak into Saturday's championship game and now has won 16 of its past 18 games.
This will be the first all-public school Division I final since 2004, when Wilcox defeated Palo Alto, 5-4, and only the third in the past 21 years. Monta Vista beat Leland in the Division 4A title game in 1990.
Menlo, meanwhile, will be attempting to win back-to-back titles since first accomplishing that in 1988 and '89. The Knights have a seven-game win streak, outscoring the competition by 78-18 during the streak.
Schoof had plenty of standouts on Tuesday, with junior Freddy Avis and freshman Mikey Diekroeger being two of them. Avis delivered a clutch two-run double to cap a six-run sixth inning and tie the game, 8-8, and force extra innings. The Knights loaded the bases in the ninth and Diekroeger brought home Phil Anderson with a sacrifice fly as Menlo escaped with a hard-fought win over Carmel (26-4).
"Freddy's hit was huge," said Schoof.
"That's what baseball is all about, having those kind of moments," added Avis.
Trailing 8-2 heading into the top of the sixth, Schoof gathered his team for one final talk. The situation looked grim, for sure.
"Coach Schoof said 'show the heart of a champion. Leave it all on the field,' related senior Jake Bruml. "We just left it all out there. We felt, and knew, we could do it."
Bruml, who had relieved Avis in the fifth and allowed a two-run double, took matters into his own hands with a leadoff double in the top of the sixth.
"I think that leadoff knock was huge," Bruml said. "I think it put pressure on them. Everything just went our way from then on."
After a strikeout, Diekroeger singled home Bruml and it was 8-3. Tim Benton's double-play grounder was dropped at second and Jake Batchelder was safe on a error to load the bases. Senior Robert Wickers then delivered a two-run single, a chopper over the third baseman's head. Suddenly, it was 8-5. Austin Marcus was safe when his apparent groundout was dropped at first, with another run coming home for an 8-6 game. After Carmel switched pitchers, Avis greeted him with a booming double to the left-field gap that scored two runs and tied the game.
In the top of the ninth, Anderson walked and Bruml's popup to short right was mishandled for an error by two converging players. The Padres tried to get Anderson at second, but the throw was wild and both runners were safe. Dylan Mayer laid down a bunt, with the new pitcher throwing late to third in an attempt to get Anderson.
With the bases loaded and no outs, Diekroeger brought home Anderson with his sacrifice fly.
Menlo didn't get its first hit until Anderson singled to center in the fourth. The Knights didn't get their first run until the fifth, when Anderson drilled a two-run single with the bases loaded. That gave Menlo life at 5-2 until Carmel scored three runs in the bottom of the frame for an 8-2 lead. The Knights' chances of defending their title looked all but gone at that point.
But, they never gave up.
"I thought it was possible," Schoof said of coming back, but he wasn't sure how probable it was. "We were beating ourselves early. It did not look like our game."
The Knights proved otherwise. Bruml, Batchelder and Anderson all had two hits. Avis, Anderson Diekroeger and Wickers all drove in two runs.
"It doesn't get any better than that," Schoof told his team afterward. Except, perhaps, for winning a fifth CCS title on Saturday.