By Jeremy McDonald
While talking to Santiam’s Colin Thurston earlier this week on Instagram, doing a feature on him and talking about that great St. Paul-Santiam game he played in his sophomore year, I couldn’t help to think about the best game I’ve covered.
That Buckaroo-Wolverine game is a close second for me with how back and forth it was and Thurston leading Santiam down for the game-winning Field Goal. I still don’t know how that kick went through; I’m still stunned to this day as I think many others were that cold night in Cottage Grove and I bring it up once-in-a-blue moon when I’m in Mill City. I could go on about that game for another time.
But the top game for me was a Section Title Game in California six years ago. It was Memorial Day May 25, 2015 at Sacramento City College. It was the Lincoln Fighting Zebras second-straight Sac-Joaquin Section Division III appearance when they faced their rival Placer for the Section Title. The game itself was the icing on the cake on the redemption tour from the year before that made it special for me.
In California, the Section Title is the final game of the year considering there is not State Championship in California for baseball.
It was my second year out of college, second-year writing in California and second year covering Lincoln High School. I followed them in 2014 in their Cinderella run from a 10-14-1 play-in team to the Section Title game. Knocking off the 18-10 Yuba City Honkers, revenge game from the year before where Yuba knocked Lincoln out of the playoffs. They swept Pioneer Valley Conference-foe Colfax in the Best-of-3 series in the Section Semi-Final Round.
Lincoln, for reference, is about 30 miles east of Sacramento along Highway 65 off of Interstate 80. I was living in the Roseville-area, so it was about a 15-minute drive from Lincoln.
Sometimes as a writer you know you may have stumbled into a gold mind. This was one of those moments driving home from McAuffile Field that night after the Yuba City game like this program was about to do something special. I knew I was pushing the issue being a freelancer first off and a first-year writer by asking an editor to take the lead on this, but Jim (the editor) allowed me to do so.
They fell to Pioneer 2-0 at Sacramento City College on Memorial Day 2014 in the Section Final. A game in which it felt like the Zebras were one hack from a different game.
Next year rolls around, new coach, and lost only three Seniors from the team before. Lincoln wheeled off 14-straight wins to get to the Title game, picking up the Pioneer Valley Conference-title over rival Placer of Auburn along the way. Fire from the year before fueled them going into the Division-IV playoffs and wanting that Title for the city.
Unfortunately, they were playing the Hillmen (Placer’s mascot) once more in the final. Two of their three games leading up were within two-runs with Lincoln ten-running Placer in the other game.
Placer’s starting pitcher Tyler Gums went down before the start of the game and the Zebras took an 8-2 lead into the third inning before things mellowed out and the Hillmen marched back.
Up 9-4 entering the seventh, Placer plated three runs and my thinking was, ‘I’m bad juju for Lincoln’ with a laugh. I think I may have made the joke out-loud to a few reporters I knew at the game stemming off what happened the year before. The question became if the Zebras had enough in the tank to pull it off in the bottom of the seventh after their hot start and being quiet since the second inning?
9-7 was the score at this point in the seventh inning and the Hillmen had flipped the momentum script with Lincoln on their heels. I was nervous to see how the kids would be if they somehow lost this game knowing how much this redemption season meant to them and to get this title for the community. The game ended quickly after the juju thought and had kept myself from letting out a quick holler knowing how much this game meant for them after how the year before ended for them.
There was the dogpile and the crowd was cheering as I walked onto the field, trying to get out of the way of game management trying to do the trophy ceremony and trying to set up the field for the next game coming up afterwards.
The biggest thing I remember from the post-celebration was Lincoln’s catcher/pitcher Eli Garcia, who’s now pitching in college, going ‘We’re getting new hats!’ as each section winner gets a new hat saying they’re District Champs along with the trophy and a medal. Eli’s dad is on my Facebook still and I comment on a few things involving Eli and his older brother Isaiah once in a while.
Seeing memories from those two years takes me back to those days covering the teams.
As a writer, being able to see that dream come to life was something that has stuck with me through the years. I’ve seen probably 100-200 games since that day, but this game I always reference back to as the game as the definition of hard work and sacrifice.