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Mighty Miners at the bat

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the NU nine that day. The Miners stood 0-6 with 21 more games to play.

And so when Johnson High took a 7-3 lead into the seventh inning of the game, it looked as though Nevada Union’s conference opener would end up just the same.

But even without a mighty Casey to send into play, NU skipper Ted White had no doubt that his Miners could still save the day.

And their season.

Nevada Union rallied back to knot that St. Patrick’s Day game at 7-7 after a two-run homer from junior Peter Ruiz – who also put the Miners in the win column for the first time in 2004 with a two-run, eighth-inning single off a full-count, two-out pitch.

Had you said it at the time, most would have scoffed at the notion that this same Nevada Union team would be taking the field on May 22 – in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.

But here they are.

“We were always optimistic,” said White, whose Miners wrapped up what he deemed a roller-coaster ride of a season with third place in the Metro Conference. “But even though we played real good teams in those first six games, the kids lost some confidence in themselves.

“I remember that first league game with Johnson. We had to go extra innings to beat them, a team we beat easily the next two times (by a combined 35-3 count on April 14-15). It was like we were thinking, ‘How are we going to lose this game?’ Rather than ‘How are we going to win?”

The Miners may have been shellshocked not only by the fact that they had come up empty in their first six, but also how they were ending up in the loss column. Two of those losses were one-run nail-biters, including a 4-3, season-opening defeat to Christian Brothers (March 3) and 5-4 decision to Del Campo three days later.

The other four, though, left no doubt in which team deserved the “W.” NU lost to Elk Grove, Jesuit, Rocklin and Pleasant Valley by a combined 50-10.

White knew coming into the season that graduation had taken its toll on the tested talent NU put on the field in 2003, when the Miners made their first playoff appearance under White. Just three players who saw action a year before returned this spring.

Robbie Alcombrack, who started as an NU freshman, transferred to Forest Lake Christian. Matt Reiswig, 6-foot-5, 240-pound pitcher penciled in as one of the Miners top two starters, was forced to watch his senior season from the sidelines after sustaining a blood clot in his arm. Jarad Van Matre, who starred as a quarterback in the fall and as a power forward in the winter for Nevada Union, experienced arm trouble that limited his action to three innings of work about every two weeks, White said.

“So all the sudden, you’ve got Curtis Campbell, who was our No. 3, as our ace and (Jason) Roenicke as our No. 2 instead of being our closer,” White said. “The frustrating part was these were things out of our control. It was like ‘Man, if we had those two guys we’d be challenging for the league title.”

The Miners still found themselves in the top tier of the Metro Standings after winning six of their first eight league games – and later made it seven of eight, when McClatchy had to forfeit its March 19 victory over the Miners due to using an ineligible player.

Then, though, came the downturn.

NU dropped six of its next seven Metro matchups to leave its league mark hovering around .500 with three games to go.

“We lost some heartbreaking games. We lost to (league champion) Woodland by one run twice, one of them in extra innings. And then we lost a close one to Yuba City at Raley Field,” White said. “It would have been easy to say the season’s over. We basically had to win our last three games. I told them to ‘Play hard and let’s see where we end up at the end.

“And I think all three of our returning seniors (Campbell, Roenicke and Van Matre) really stepped up. We were young and inexperienced, so those guys had to step up and be leaders for us. Then everybody else will follow.”

Campbell came up with one of his top performances as a pitcher in the first of NU’s final three-game stretch, tossing a one-hitter in a 5-1 win at Yuba City on May 4.

One day later, Campbell came through at the plate, producing a 2-for-4 night with 4 RBI to lead NU past rival Grant for a 10-4 win on the road.

Two days after that, the Miners pounded the Pacers 12-6, after Roenicke scored two runs and drove in another, while Van Matre crossed the plate three times and Campbell produced a 2-for-2 hitting night with 3 RBI.

When the dust had settled, the Miners had put together three consecutive wins for the first time this season – and had put themselves in the Division I playoffs for the second straight season with a third-place league finish.

“You have to give the kids a lot of credit,” White said, deflecting attention from what had to be one of the toughest, yet most satisfying regular-season runs in his 25 years in the third-base box. “We weren’t expected to do much this year. But I never coached differently this year than last year, when we had a real good team.

“The kids deserve the credit, because they kept coming to practice every day and working hard.”

Nevada Union (11-16 overall, 11-7 Metro) opens the postseason against Delta League champion Sheldon (17-9, 13-4) in the 1:15 p.m. game May 22 at American River College.

“Last year, we felt some pressure (in a 2-1, first-round loss to Elk Grove) because people knew we were a pretty good team,” White said. “This year, we weren’t supposed to be here.

“This week at practice, the guys were relaxed and confident. Shoot, who knows? Maybe we can go in there and knock off some of the big dogs.”

Why not? After all, these Miners seem to play their best to win, when they’ve got nothing to lose.

ooo

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. He may be reached via e-mail at brianh@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4240.


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