Bruins making history
SACRAMENTO – This was not the team Mike Viola expected to be meeting new milestones for the Bear River baseball program.
But the 2007 Bruins and their skipper are now headed to the first Sac-Joaquin Section baseball championship game in school history, after emerging from an 11-inning, semifinal struggle against Center with an 8-5 victory Wednesday.
After a graduation day exodus took its toll on last season’s roster, Viola wondered what kind of club he had to follow up on the 22-2 campaign he coached in 2006.
Despite having what he deemed to be a more talented club – including two players who were selected in the Major League Baseball draft – the Bruins fell in the first round of action for a fourth time.
Regardless of the record Bear River had compiled, there was no mistaking the disappointment in the season ending on “Suicide Saturday.”
“I’m telling you this, at the beginning of the year we just wanted to make the playoffs,” said Viola, in his eighth season with the Bruins. “But then we won the league and that was just unbelievable.
“Then we got through Saturday, which is what these guys have been talking about all along.”
After that bitter ending to the 2006 slate, during an American Legion game three days later, Viola was still stinging from the loss when he was approached by Bear River junior Bryan Sibis.
“He told me ‘Coach don’t worry about last year’s team. We may not go 22-1, but we’re going to win on Saturday,'” Viola said. “That’s just the way it’s been with these guys. ‘Don’t worry, Coach. We’ll be OK.'”
Time again this season that’s been the case, as the Bruins have battled back from early deficits to get end up with the victory in the end.
That was the story in Tuesday’s opener in the best-of-three series with Center. Though they entered the fifth inning trailing 7-3, the Bruins scored five in the frame to take command in an eventual 9-8 win.
On Thursday, the Cougars appeared in control again, leading 4-1 after four innings of action. But back the Bruins came in the fifth again, scoring three runs on three hits to knot things at 4-4 where the score stood heading into extra innings.
In the top of the 11th, with two runners aboard, Sibis came to the plate and caught the eye of teammate Austin French, who was standing on third base.
“I looked at him and said ‘I’ll hit you in,'” said Sibis, who had twice been hit by pitches – including one to the helmet – to go along with a 3-for-4 afternoon with a double and a triple. “He said ‘I know you will.’ All I was thinking about was that I had to hit him in.”
Sure enough, Sibis singled to left-center field to score French for the go-ahead run.
“That’s Sibis,” Viola said. “He will battle you to the bitter end.”
But even after taking the lead, the Bruins weren’t through. Beck came to the plate three batters later and drove across two more runs with a bloop single down the right-field line.
Senior A.J. Nuñez added another run by scoring on a passed ball to give Bear River reliever James McCririe all the cushion he could ask for with an 8-4 advantage heading into the bottom half of the inning.
After allowing three runs through three innings, Bruin starting pitcher Brynn Beck settled down and kept the Cougars relatively quiet into the ninth inning. Beck struck out four and walked four while scattering seven hits and allowing three earned runs in eight innings of work.
“Knowing how hard I worked all season long – all my life, really … honestly eating, sleeping everything baseball,” said Beck, moments after the win. “I just knew it was my last game pitching. And Lord knows, I didn’t want to come out in the fourth inning with three runs given up.
“What I’ve been saying all my life is I want to leave it on the field. And today, I really meant it.”
Bear River will face a familiar foe in Monday’s Division IV section championship game, which is scheduled to start at noon.
The Bruins, the Pioneer Valley League co-champions, will square off with Valley Oak League champion Oakdale, which defeated Placer in Wednesday’s other semifinal. The last time the two teams met, Bear River fell to Oakdale 3-0 in the first round of the 2005 section playoffs. But both teams have revamped rosters since that contest two years ago.
“The team we had last year had a lot of talent and they expected to win,” Viola said. “But this group of kids, they’re starting to feel they can’t be beat. They are by far the hardest-working individuals I’ve had … That kind of stuff, you can’t teach it.”
To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4240.
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Hank Sowell’s introduction to the game of golf came early as a set of clubs was among the gifts he received on his very first birthday.