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July 3, 2022

Los Gatos High baseball team battle tested in quest to win CCS title

After going through a grueling Santa Clara Valley League De Anza Division schedule and playing some top-notch non-league competition, the Los Gatos High baseball team was well prepared to make a deep run in the Central Coast Section playoffs, no matter what division it was placed in. 

But as the top seed in the Division III tournament and given their history and strength of schedule, the Wildcats have to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the title. They opened up their title run with an impressive 8-0 home win over No. 8 seed Aragon of San Mateo on May 21. 

As a reward for earning the top seed, Los Gatos gets to play its May 25 semifinal game against No. 4 Monterey on the Toreadors’ home field, Sollecito Ballpark. Washington Park in Santa Clara and Sollecito are the designated CCS semifinal playoff sites for Divisions II-VI, which were determined at the start of the season. 

“The thing that’s frustrating is if we’re the No. 1 seed, we should go to Washington Park,” Wildcats coach Justin Oliver said. “It was frustrating at first, but we’re past it. I think on our end obviously we would rather go to Washington Park, but (Sollecito) is a good ballpark out there. It’ll be a tough atmosphere for us. Monterey is a gritty team, they’re very vocal in the dugout and they’re good.”

Los Gatos received another outstanding performance from ace Kaito Haake, who pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits in the process. Will Hansen closed things out with 1 2/3 shutout innings of relief. Haake, a burly senior right-hander, came up huge considering the circumstances. 

Haake was only cleared the day before the game due to Covid protocols which caused him to be away from the team for eight days. Oliver said he and Haake did a bullpen session at Los Altos High two days before the game. 

Haake has been solid all season and really pitched well down the stretch, going 3-0 in his last three starts. 

“What really impresses me about Kaito is he misses eight days so we’re not sure about his endurance and how he would be,” Oliver said. “But he was lights-out.”

Utilizing a cutter and curveball, Haake completely shut down the Aragon lineup. 

“We went to the cutter a lot because the scouting report with Aragon is they swing at first-pitch fastball,” Oliver said. “So we kind of pitched backward most of the game starting guys off with the cutter and curve.” 

Haake needed just 74 pitches in his start, meaning he could be available for an inning or two if the situation warrants it. 

Oliver has Jake Boyd as his No. 2 starter and the school’s record-setting quarterback happens to have quality stuff on the bump. In his last outing, a 4-3 loss to Homestead High on May 6, Boyd went 4 2/3 innings, allowing three earned runs while striking out 10. 

The Los Gatos bats were potent against Aragon, scoring a run in all but one inning. Nick Temple went 3-for-3 and was a home run short of hitting for the cycle. He got hit by a pitch in his last at-bat, spoiling any shot of the grand achievement. 

“Nick Temple was huge for us,” Oliver said. 

The Los Gatos skipper said the team has been boosted by the play of two junior varsity sophomore call-ups in Dalton Murphree and A.J. Ljepava, who plays left field and bats No. 2 in the order. Murphree plays first base and both players get on base, run well and make things happen on the basepaths, adding to the Wildcats’ strength of putting pressure on defenses. 

“Our team speed has picked up a ton bringing those guys into the mix,” Oliver said. “They give us a lot of options. We’re looking to run, move and get on base, and that’s what we did (against Aragon).”

Jaden Mena walked three times, Ljepava had two doubles and Carter Johnstone went 2-for-3 with a double in a 4-3, eight-inning walkoff loss to Wilcox in the semifinals of the SCVAL De Anza Division tournament on May 11. Those types of games against that caliber of opponent have strengthened Los Gatos’ resolve. 

The Wildcats are peaking at the right time and a win over Monterey will put them in the Division III championship game on May 27 at Excite Ballpark/San Jose Municipal Stadium at a time to be determined. 

“We’re really coming together at the right time and Saturday (beating Aragon) was by far our best game of the season,” Oliver said. “We’ve played every big team we can, and our guys have taken lumps all year. But we’re battle tested and we like our chances.”

Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]