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Sweet Victory Baseball Cougars Claim Section Title With Win Over Central
In a season where tragedy brought the team together, Escalon's varsity baseball boys made it one for the record books, claiming the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 crown with a 15-4 thrashing of Central Catholic at Lodi's Zupo Field on Monday.

Senior Justin Martinez lost his father, Chris, unexpectedly early in the season to a fatal heart attack. The loss of such a huge supporter for the baseball program and Escalon High School in general could have had a devastating effect on the 2010 Cougars ... but they used it instead to galvanize the team, dedicating this season to Justin's dad.

An emotional Justin Martinez tried to hold back the tears on Monday afternoon, as the Cougars reached the pinnacle of success - and achieved the goal they had been working for all season long.

"I'm coming to tears right now ... this team rose up for my father; seeing that is special," Justin said. "It's one in a million, it really is."

Just hours after his father's passing in late March, Justin was on the mound for the Cougars and pitched a masterful game, earning a win and taken out of the game in the top of the seventh so he could hear the cheers from the supportive crowd.

Those same fans - and more - were also there to spend Memorial Day with the Cougars, who avenged a 10-8 2007 loss to Central in the finals and knocked the Raiders out of the spot they have held for the past decade, Section champs.

"It was pretty sweet," agreed head coach Greg Largent, who said the team was committed to each other throughout the campaign.

They also wore a patch with the initials 'CM' on their hat and began using that as their 'break' saying instead of the more traditional 'Cougars' call.

"Travis Cardoza's homer in the second got us going, he really is kind of our emotional leader anyway, and we went on to score six in the second," Largent added.

Central countered with two in the second and two more in the third, keeping the game close early on.

"We were a little nervous," Largent admitted. "We knew we had to get more runs."

It was then the word 'Geico' started filtering around the dugout, with the Cougars playing off the popular Geico insurance ads to encourage themselves to bank those insurance runs.

A huge two-run blast from junior Aaron Pangilinan helped them do just that in the top of the fourth, extending the lead to 8-4. A run in the sixth made it 9-4 and they put the exclamation point on with a flood of hits and runs in a six-run seventh.

"They smelled the blood in the water," Largent said of his players. "That top of the seventh, it was a hit, another hit, a run, another hit, another run."

Senior Nick Largent, who had double the reason to celebrate, sharing the title with his dad and coach Greg Largent, said all players took the mission seriously this year, and were able to draw on the inspiration of dedicating their season to Chris Martinez.

"He's in there every time we swing the bat and every play we make," Largent said of still feeling his presence on the field. "He's such a big influence."

Escalon was the visiting team in the finale and got the best of Central starter Billy Flamion.

"Brandon did a good job keeping Flamion off balance, he didn't hurt us offensively," Largent noted of his starter for the finale, junior Brandon Shaw.

Though he wasn't as sharp as he was earlier in the playoffs, Shaw pitched a solid five innings and kept the Central offense in check, including an 0-for-2 day for Flamion. On the mound against Escalon, the Central ace found himself overmatched.

"I don't think he's seen anything like our line up," Largent said. "When your number nine hitter (Cardoza) goes 3-for-3 with a double and a homer ... he's not used to seeing that."

Matt Valencia came on to pitch the final two innings for Escalon.

The Cougars earlier defeated Livingston, 2-0, in the best two-out-of-three semifinal series to reach the championship game, while Central went 2-1 against Linden to return to the title contest.

Escalon advanced with a 7-1 win over Livingston in a game on May 24, which then gave them a week off before the championship game.

"The 7-1 win got us into the Section final, that was one more thing on our checklist," said coach Largent.

After an undefeated run last year through preseason and league play, the Cougars were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, in a single elimination bracket. The bitter taste of that defeat fueled the fire early on this season, and that, coupled with the team loss of Chris Martinez, solidified the mission.

In the May 24 game, Escalon had seven runs on nine hits and no errors. Livingston had one run on four hits with two errors.

Justin Martinez went five innings to get the win in that game, allowing one run on three hits. He had three strikeouts and five walks.

"He was at 102 pitches through five innings, so his pitch count was getting up there," said Largent.

Shaw came on in the sixth and went the final two innings, striking out four and allowing one hit.

Escalon scored five runs in the third inning to take an early lead in the May 24 game, sending nine batters to the plate. Aaron Pangilinan singled and, after one out, Patrick Mulry tripled to drive him in. Derrick DeFreitas followed with an RBI single, Matt Valencia ripped an RBI double. After the second out, Travis Cardoza connected with an RBI double, then Josh Miguel had an RBI single to round out the scoring.

"They scored their lone run in the fifth," Largent said of Livingston. "They got a lead off single, a fielders choice and a two out single."

The Cougars answered back with two runs in the bottom of the fifth. After one out, Valencia and Trey Balber each worked out a walk, with Logan Stewart going in to run for Balber. After another out, Miguel walked to load the bases and Spencer Franceschetti had a two-run single to make it 7-1.

Largent said the players never got too up or too down during the season, accepting the few losses as they came and staying focused even when they were on a big winning streak. They ended the campaign with a 25-3 record and are an astounding 51-4 over the last two seasons.

"The seniors were focused, we had some enthusiastic younger kids ready to help out," Largent said. "There was a whole different feel, we were loose and confident, not cocky."

Largent said the team arrived at Zupo Field on Monday with that same swagger, but again, it was confidence that drove them.

"They just feed off each other," said the coach. "In 23 years of doing this, this is the best chemistry by far of any team I've coached. They fight like brothers, but they've got each other's backs."

The community turned out in droves for the finale and, if winning it for 'CM' wasn't inspiration enough, Largent said he told the players to look in the stands and realize that they were playing that game for everyone ... for the grandfather they first played catch with, for the brother they played whiffle ball with, for the Little League All-Stars there in uniform, looking up to the Cougars they someday want to be ...

The emotional finale did not disappoint, and it was as sweet a victory as any of the players have tasted.

The 2010 Cougars had it all; solid starting pitching, a potent offense up and down the line up, outstanding defense ... and the drive to see it through, all the way to the end, to claim that coveted blue Section banner.

Senior Nick Largent said the game stirred up that old Escalon - Central Catholic rivalry and the fact that it was for the Section crown just fanned the flames even more.

"As we got runs, our blood was flowing and we knew we could do this," Nick said. "We knew they were not going to stop us."

Staff reporter Ike Dodson contributed to this story.