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Section Title - Third Time's Still A Charm For Cougar Diamondmen
Escalon's near perfect season came to a satisfying end on Memorial Day, Monday, as the varsity baseball Cougars took a hard fought 2-1 victory from Hilmar at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi, ending the year with a 27-1-1 mark and hoisting the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 blue championship banner overhead.

For many, it was a sweet victory that took away some of the sting from the Yellowjackets defeating the Cougars for the Section football crown earlier this school year.

Hilmar, however, drew first blood in the top of the third, with a single sandwiched in between two Matt Valencia strikeouts. It was a manufactured run, as the player moved to second on an error, reached third on a passed ball and came in to score on another passed ball. But that would be all the Yellowjackets would get, as Valencia gave up just three hits and had nine strikeouts.

Escalon took the lead in the bottom of the fourth, with Valencia getting on when the back of his jersey was grazed by a pitch as he turned to get out of the way. Robbie Steves executed the hit and run perfectly, sending the ball back up the middle and Valencia taking third, running with the pitch. With runners at first and third and no outs, Trey Balber struck out but the ball got away from the catcher and Valencia was able to score the tying run. Steves moved to second on the play and after a strikeout by Matt Roberson, Nathan Chunn was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second. Phillip Kimble then drove a ball through to the outfield, good for a single and driving in Steves with the go ahead run. Josh Miguel then flied out to left field to end the threat.

Along the way, there were some disputed calls, including a pick off of a Hilmar player at first after the Cougars disputed the runner being called safe on a throw from deep short by Miguel that appeared to beat the runner to the bag. A pinch runner came in and it was that runner that Valencia picked off before making a throw to the plate to the next hitter.

Escalon also got into a jam in the top of the sixth, as Hilmar kept pushing.

A leadoff walk saw the runner move to second on a wild pitch. A bunt attempt was popped up and caught by Valencia, coming off the mound, but the next hitter sent it back through the infield and hustle had the Yellowjackets standing on second and third with one out. The clean-up hitter tried to catch the Cougars napping, putting down a bunt, but first baseman Chunn charged the ball, turned and fired a strike to second baseman Gino Franceschetti covering first and then an alert Franceschetti got the ball to Balber at the plate, who put the tag on the runner coming down the line. Hilmar argued the runner slid in safely but Balber, blocking the plate, appeared to keep him from reaching the base.

The unusual 3-4-2 double play kept the Cougars ahead by a run, averting a potential big inning by the Yellowjackets.

Unfortunately, Escalon couldn't capitalize on the momentum, unable to get anything going offensively in the bottom of the sixth. Steves stung a ball to centerfield but it went for a long out, with Balber and Roberson both striking out, as the Hilmar pitcher was also dealing.

More drama in the top of the seventh, as the Cougars looked to close it out. But Hilmar's leadoff hitter was hit by a pitch after a 2-2 count to start the inning and, on a Valencia pick off throw to first, the first base umpire ruled the runner out, Chunn getting the tag down before he got back to the base. The third base umpire, however, overruled him and called a balk on Valencia, allowing the runner to move to second.

A bunt by the next hitter was fielded by Valencia, who looked the runner back to second before throwing it to Franceschetti covering for the first out. After going to a 3-2 count on the next hitter, Valencia found some gas still in the tank and blew a fastball past him for the strikeout. The final hitter, with the tying run on second, got ahead in the count, 2-0, with Valencia then coming back to make it 2-2. Two balls were fouled off and the final pitch was a sharp grounder to Chunn, who made the play and took the ball to the bag himself for the unassisted putout as the Cougars began the celebration.

"It was crazy," Escalon coach Greg Largent admitted of the game, with balks, pickoffs, passed balls and the final one-run margin. "The good thing is we took care of business late. I'm so proud of this group. To win once is great, two times is even better but the third time? And that target gets bigger and bigger."

Largent said the team's tough preseason, where they faced a gauntlet of Division I teams, helped in the end.

"That got us ready for this," he said. "We just needed to get here."

For winning pitcher Valencia, he said getting the balk called on him just made him focus more.

"I was angry," he admitted. "So I just focus on the next hitter, take it out on their hitters."

When the last pitch headed Chunn's way, Valencia said he knew the title was Escalon's once again.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "Unbelievable."

Senior Patrick Mulry said Hilmar played an excellent game, with the pitchers giving Cougar hitters trouble.

"Usually we don't press, today I kind of did," Mulry said. "Their pitchers were dealing, they played a really great game today."

Fellow senior Jake Hood agreed.

"We got down 1-0 and it's like we were just too nervous early," Hood said. "I knew we would put some runs on the board."

Hood, who was part of the Cougar football team that lost to Hilmar in the Section final in December, said that was a motivating point for many of the team members.

"We had a chip on our shoulder," he said.

Catcher Trey Balber, part of the string of three consecutive Section championship teams, agreed that the football loss played a role.

"We weren't letting it happen, not twice in one school year," Balber said of Hilmar taking a title from them.

Escalon had two runs on four hits, Hilmar had one run on three hits. Cougar hits were a leadoff single from Josh Miguel, who also stole second in the first inning. Chunn had a single in the third, Steves an RBI single in the fourth and Kimble an RBI single in the fourth.

"We won 28 last year, 27-1-1 this year is pretty nice," added coach Largent, whose team will likely also be crowned State Champions once again. "This is just a special group."

They earlier dispatched Capital Christian in two games in the best two-out-of-three semifinal series, winning the opener on May 19 and taking game two on Wednesday afternoon, May 23. That second win, which pushed the Cougars into the championship showdown with Hilmar, was a 6-2 victory.

"The storyline there was Matt Valencia, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning," said Largent. "He pitched a gem, struck out nine, walked three and gave up just two hits, in the seventh."

Escalon came in as the visiting team and quickly jumped out to a lead, scoring in the first inning.

Josh Miguel scored on an RBI single from Valencia, Gino Franceschetti scored after reaching on a walk, advancing on the single and then coming in on a passed ball. The Cougars wasted a leadoff triple from Matt Roberson in the second but in the third, Franceschetti doubled, moved to third and scored on a pair of wild pitches for a 3-0 lead. Doubles in the fifth inning from Patrick Mulry, Valencia and Trey Balber meant two more runs and a Mulry triple to drive in a run in the sixth made it 6-0.

Capital Christian spoiled the no-hitter with back-to-back singles in the seventh, an error, sacrifice fly and a passed ball accounting for the two runs.

Franceschetti was 2-for-3 with a double and three runs scored, Mulry had a double and triple, Valencia was 3-for-4 with two RBIs.

Facing off with Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar was a satisfying way to cap the 2012 campaign, said Largent.

"In a silent way, I think they were hoping it would be Hilmar," he said of his players wanting to see the Yellowjackets at Zupo.