By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
RIVERSIDE — Pasadena Poly coach Wayne Ellis had only one thought in mind as he traveled down memory lane during Saturday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 6 championship game against Oxford Academy.
A coaching career spanning 24 years and 400-plus victories circled him back where it twice had gone wrong, only this time his ease was put to rest early.
Jordan Kutzer flirted with a no-hit bid and Jonah Campbell’s two-run triple in the sixth was the final nail in the coffin as the Panthers cruised to a 10-0 win to bring home the school’s first ever baseball title in front of a pro-Poly crowd at UC Riverside.
Pasadena Poly (25-2-1) dethroned two-time defending champion Oxford Academy (26-3), a team still reeling from the loss of star first baseman Doug Uselton, who died in December along with his father Steven after the car they were driving in was struck by a suspected drunk driver.
Oxford Academy pitcher Steve Criss said even with a big deficit against Poly, Uselton would have fought until the end, which is what the top-seeded Patriots did.
Ellis, who has guided the Panthers to the playoffs in 23 of his 24 seasons and a state-record 16 consecutive (Prep) league titles, drew inspiration from playoff experience and reflected.
“I was thinking throughout the years about the players I’ve had and how successful they’ve been and never quite had this feeling that my kids have now,” said Ellis, who guided the Panthers to the 1992 and 1989 finals. “But most of all, I didn’t want these kids to have that hurt feeling of losing.”
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The game was never in doubt, from the start Pasadena Poly proved it was the better team, and there was no argument from Oxford Academy coach Cory Williams.
“If we played our best I don’t know if we’re better than they are,” he said. “I’m surprised with the talent that they’ve had they hadn’t been (in the finals) the last two years.”
Kutzer helped his own cause with a first-pitch RBI double off Patriots pitcher Steve Criss to score Jack Birkenbeuel, who drew a lead off walk. It proved to be the only run the Panthers needed, ending the season with an impressive 23-game winning streak.
“I was happy he gave me a fastball,” Kutzer said. “It was good to get that first run because that seems like the hardest one somtimes.”
But the runs came coming — three in the third and six in the sixth — and there was nothing Criss could do about it.
“The problem I had today was getting a curve ball and screw ball for a strike,” Criss said, “and when I can’t get it for a strike I have to rely on my fastball. I put it over the plate and they hit it around, one through nine. I totally respect all 10 of their runs.”
Pasadena Poly’s offense was alive, but its defensive prowess also was on display. First, Caleb Lee made a spectacular sliding catch in the second to rob at least a double off of Harvey Higger, prompting a standing ovation from Poly fans.
Kutzer in the third struck out the side, including Juan Viana on three pitches. Then in the fourth Birkenbeuel, the third baseman, turned a double play to cut off Salvador Navarrete at third before firing a lazer to Hunter Merryman at first to throw out Lucas Sardo.
The final out in that inning was a Matt Saeta-Birkenbeuel production. Hayden Higger popped up at the plate. Saeta took position, flipped off his mask before seemingly making the catch. The ball, however, jumped out of Saeta’s glove. But Birkenbeuel was there to make the acrobatic catch, ending the Patriots’ momentum.
Pasadena Poly capitalized on an error that kept Brian Holman’s sacrifice bunt in play while Logan Beerman and Davey Feess scored to make it 6-0. A sacrifice fly, Campbell’s two-run triple and Lee’s RBI bloop single capped the scoring.
Still, it was much too early to celebrate. Holman entered the sixth in relief and came away unscathed despite giving up a walk, single and a Panthers error that kept the inning alive. Holman showed poise, getting Lucak to strike out looking.
“Brian came in and shut the door,” Kutzer said. “I was pacing the entire time. I wasn’t ready to relax until that last out was made.”
Holman again showed poise. After striking out Hayden Higger, Holman hit Harvey Higger in the elbow to keep the game alive. Holman wasn’t fazed, as he struck out Evan May swinging and Dominic Medina looking to complete Ellis’ resume.
“This is a big deal for coach,” Kutzer said. “To be able to go out there and win the first one with him is an honor.”
The win also was an exclamation mark for the career of seniors Terrance Yen, Kutzer, Holman, Saeta, and Merryman.
“Especially, at least for me,” Merryman said, “where [in] basketball we get to the semifinals two years in a row and in football we got to the semis this year.
“It’s a great feeling to end it like this on top.”
Pasadena Poly 10
Oxford Academy 0
Pasadena Poly 103 006 0 — 10 13 2
Oxford Academy 000 000 0 — 0 4 1
Jordan Kutzer, Brian Holman (6) and Matt Saeta; Steve Criss, Daniel Lucak (2), Criss (3), Evan May (7) and Hayden Higger.
3B: Jonah Campbell (Poly), 2B: Kutzer (Poly) 2, Jack Birkenbeuel, Hunter Merryman. RBIs: Campbell 3. W: Kutzer 6-1. L: Criss.
Records: Pasadena Poly 25-2-1; Oxford Academy 26-3.