The Fallbrook High School team won the Warriors’ first-ever CIF baseball championship on May 27.
The Warriors faced Maranatha Christian in the Division III final at the University of California, San Diego and scored the winning run for the 2-1 victory in the bottom of the sixth.
“You’ve got to give it all to the kids,” said Fallbrook coach Pat Walker.
A regular-season record of 17-8-1, which included an 11-4 Valley League record for the Warriors’ first league championship since 2006, gave Fallbrook the second seed in the CIF Division III playoffs. Maranatha Christian was the top-seeded team in the division and Vista had the third seed.
Vista was also in the Valley League as was seventh-seeded El Camino and 11th-seeded Escondido. Escondido and Vista both had 9-6 Valley League records to share second place. El Camino was 7-8 in Valley League competition for fourth.
Since 2002, the CIF San Diego Section has had a double-elimination playoff for baseball. The format provides a first-round bye for the top four seeded teams in each division. The other teams have a single-elimination “play-in,” and the winners of that play-in advance to the double-elimination phase. El Camino, whose record was 14-14 for the regular season, defeated 10th-seeded Mar Vista to advance to the double-elimination rounds. Fallbrook and El Camino faced each other May 17 in Fallbrook.
The Wildcats sent Fallbrook to the losers’ bracket with a 4-2 triumph over the Warriors. “Lost a tough game to El Camino,” Walker said. “They got four runs in the first. Zero the rest of the game.”
Fallbrook’s first run was scored in the fourth. Four of the first five Fallbrook batters in the fifth reached base to give the Warriors their second run. The Warriors were on the verge of taking the lead.
“The center fielder made an amazing catch with the bases loaded and one out,” Walker said.
The Fallbrook base runner on second was unable to return to the bag, and El Camino was able to get out of the inning on a double play.
“It changed the momentum of the game,” Walker said.
As the second-seeded team, Fallbrook still had the home field advantage. Oceanside, whose 6-8-1 Avocado East League record was worth fourth place in the standings and whose regular-season mark was 14-11-2, had the sixth seed in the Division III playoffs. The Pirates defeated Escondido in the play-in game, but a May 17 loss at Vista sent Oceanside to the losers’ bracket and gave the Pirates a May 19 trip to Fallbrook.
Oceanside senior Seth Hallock drove in two runs in the top of the third to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. Fallbrook took the lead with three runs in the bottom of the fifth and finalized the 7-2 score with four tallies in the sixth.
“It was a great game,” Walker said.
Last year, Fallbrook and Oceanside were both in Division IV, and Oceanside had the top seed. Fallbrook was seeded fifth and lost a game to fourth-seeded Valley Center to place the Warriors in the losers’ bracket. Two subsequent wins sent Fallbrook to Oceanside; a 2-1 win gave the Pirates their first loss of the tournament and forced a second game between Fallbrook and Oceanside, and a 3-2 Warriors victory put Fallbrook into the 2022 Division IV championship game.
“We had to beat them twice last year in the semifinals,” Walker said.
Walker credits that same mentality and resilience for this year’s victory when the Warriors were facing elimination. “The kids have this strength about them,” he said.
Five of Fallbrook’s runs were driven in by junior Austen Baker, who had two doubles. Two runs apiece were scored by senior Tanyon Smith and sophomore Evan Thomas. Thomas had three hits and, while senior Anthony Thomas didn’t record a hit, he walked in all four of his plate appearances.
The May 19 game between El Camino and Vista was a 9-1 Panthers win, so the Wildcats returned to Fallbrook for a May 20 matchup.
“We had our backs against the wall,” Walker said. “That’s kind of what the kids like. They seem to feed off that.”
Fallbrook won by a 12-4 margin. “They got it done,” Walker said. “The kids were confident.”
The Warriors had 17 hits with Evan Thomas obtaining three singles, Anthony Thomas belting two doubles, and Smith and junior Jace Cervantes each having a double and a single. Two singles apiece were hit by senior Peyton Van Eik, junior Jaxon Dent, junior Will Sherman and freshman Waylon Puikunas.
“We just pounded the ball,” Walker said. “We just kind of ran away with it.”
Vista’s regular-season record was 16-12. The Panthers’ final record became 16-14 after Fallbrook defeated Vista twice. The first game was played May 23 at Fallbrook.
“The first game was probably one of the best games I’ve ever coached,” said Walker, who has been Fallbrook’s head coach since 2014.
Walker’s assessment was based on the game overall rather than on Fallbrook’s activity alone. “That game was amazing,” he said.
Smith and Vista junior Adams Draves both threw complete games. Neither allowed a run during the first six innings. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh Draves threw Anthony Thomas a curveball for the first – and only – pitch of that plate appearance.
“Anthony Thomas hit a ball that’s still going,” Walker said.
The home run scored Sherman and Evan Thomas and gave Fallbrook a 3-0 victory.
“I got what I wanted and turned on it,” Anthony Thomas said.
“The pitcher from Vista was having a really great game,” Thomas said. “That one felt good.”
Smith allowed six hits and two walks while striking out seven batters.
Vista’s first loss of the 2023 playoffs gave the Panthers and Warriors a May 25 game at Fallbrook with the winner facing Maranatha Christian (who did not lose in the playoffs prior to the final and defeated eighth-seeded Valhalla on May 23) in the championship game. “The playoffs are momentum and so that momentum we brought into the next game where we scored nine runs in the first inning,” Walker said.
Vista had scored once in the top of the first, so those nine runs created a 9-1 score. Seven Vista runs in the top of the fourth narrowed the deficit to 9-8. “Vista came storming back,” Walker said.
Fallbrook scored once in the bottom of the fourth, twice in the fifth, and once in the sixth. “We came back and we did a good job just adding on to give us some cushion,” Walker said.
The 13-8 victory included 19 Fallbrook hits including doubles by Smith, Baker, and Cervantes. Evan Thomas and Smith each had four hits while Baker contributed three hits. Evan Thomas scored three runs with Smith and Dent scoring twice apiece. Baker drove in three runs. Smith, Anthony Thomas, Cervantes, and Sherman each drove in two teammates.
CIF playoff divisions were based on enrollment rather than competitive balance prior to 2013, and Fallbrook was in the Division I championship game both in 2004 and 2006. The Warriors next reached the CIF championship game last year, so the 2023 Warriors became the first Fallbrook baseball team to reach the CIF finals for the second year in a row.
“To get there, it’s really challenging to get back,” Walker said. “Back-to-back CIF final appearances is a big deal.”
The 2004 CIF final went into extra innings before three La Costa Canyon runs in the eighth gave the Mavericks a 7-4 victory. Poway faced Fallbrook in the 2006 championship game and prevailed by a 6-2 margin.
Mission Bay faced Fallbrook in the 2022 CIF Division IV final. The Warriors had a 4-1 lead entering the bottom of the sixth inning, but the Buccaneers scored four times in the bottom of the inning and the 5-4 final score gave Mission Bay the championship.
“We were just a little younger last year,” Walker said.
Fallbrook had four all-league players in 2022 including two seniors. This year 16 players from last year’s CIF playoff team returned. Evan Thomas was the only starting freshman on the 2022 team.
A major difference between the 2022 and 2023 Warriors was additional pitching experience. Since 1990, pitchers have been limited to 10 innings, defined as 30 outs, in a week. Since 2017, a pitcher who throws 76 or more pitches in a game may not pitch during the ensuing three days; a hurler whose outing involved between 51 and 75 pitches must not take the mound for the next two days, and a pitcher cannot return as a hurler the following day if he threw between 31 and 50 pitches.
Injuries late in the regular season and in the playoffs deprived the 2022 Warriors of two pitchers by the championship game and, with the Warriors needing two wins earlier in the week, three other pitchers were ineligible to pitch in the final. The two Fallbrook pitchers who were on the mound for the 2022 championship game had thrown a combined 10 previous innings that season.
Fallbrook’s 2022 championship game was played on a Friday. This year’s Division III final was on a Saturday. “It gave us an extra day, which is big for pitching,” Walker said.
The three days between the May 23 game and the May 27 final made Smith, who threw 101 pitches May 23, eligible for the championship game. Van Eik threw 83 pitches May 25 while senior Ethan Rink was on the mound for 36 pitches.
Prior to the CIF final, junior Tyler Allegro had thrown 20 2/3 innings. Allegro was primarily a middle relief pitcher, but Walker noted that Allegro had talent. “Boy, did he show that,” Walker said.
Allegro started the championship game against Maranatha Christian, who entered the contest with a 24-7 record including a 9-6 figure in Coastal League play to place the Eagles second behind La Jolla Country Day. Allegro threw the first five innings, allowed four hits and a walk, and struck out eight.
“He gave us five strong innings, allowed one run,” Walker said.
“It was amazing,” Allegro said. “It was just unbelievable, honestly. I felt really good out there.”
Allegro threw 81 pitches. Smith hurled the final two innings, retired all six batters he faced, and struck out four.
“It was pretty exciting for me. My starting pitcher just pounded the zone,” Smith said. “I could just come in with fastballs. That’s really all I threw, and it worked.”
Smith also played the field May 27 and, in the bottom of the third inning, he singled to right field to drive in Sherman, who had singled to lead off the inning, for the game’s first run. Maranatha Christian tied the game in the top of the fourth when junior Zeke Smith grounded out but scored junior Levi Ham.
The score was still 1-1 entering the bottom of the sixth. “The big play was the squeeze,” Walker said.
Maranatha Christian senior Joey Wittig would strike out 12 Warriors in a complete game on the mound. He allowed seven hits including a double to Anthony Thomas in the sixth.
“The Maranatha pitcher was having a great game,” Thomas said. “I was just looking for a fastball to hit, and he gave me one.”
A passed ball allowed Thomas to advance to third base. “Cervantes squeezed on a 0-0 pitch and that shocked them. They were surprised,” Walker said.
The bunt went between the pitcher and the third baseman. “It was a really good bunt at the line,” Walker said.
“Perfectly placed bunt,” Cervantes said.
“I knew Cervantes was going to get the bunt down,” Thomas said.
Thomas beat the throw to the plate for the run and a 2-1 lead. “It was just a great play,” Walker said.
Fallbrook still had to retire the Eagles in the top of the seventh. The Warriors couldn’t think about having a three-run lead in last year’s championship game and allowing four runs to lose. “Baseball’s a mental game,” Walker said.
The Warriors were mentally tough enough to get past what happened last year.
“We couldn’t have won a CIF championship with a better group of kids,” Walker said. “They just do everything better, and they’re part of just a really good culture.”
Another loss in 2022 was on the Warriors’ mind. Mark DiBenedetti was Fallbrook’s head coach from 2011 to 2013 and also had two stints as the Warriors’ pitching coach. DiBenedetti began the 2022 season as Fallbrook’s pitching coach but passed away during the season. The inspiration DiBenedetti brought to the 2022 Warriors was remembered by the 2023 players, and every time they took the field they said, “For D”.
Pat Lucy is the new pitching coach. Paul Martinez, who is also new, is an assistant coach. Walker noted that the coaches have little impact once the game is being played. “The kids are on the field. They’re the ones making the plays. They’re the ones in the clutch,” Walker said.
In addition to the CIF championship, the May 27 win gave Fallbrook an overall record of 22-9-1.