For the players and coaches of the La Cañada High baseball team, they aren’t about to let history pass them by.
The Spartans have already embarked on a groundbreaking playoff run that has culminated in the program’s first-even CIF Southern Section championship appearance. Now, La Cañada is looking to finish that journey with an historic title.
The Spartans put up multiple runs in three innings of their CIF Southern Section Division III semifinal Tuesday against Oak Hills to win, 13-2, and advance to their final.
It was a huge win, but now, La Cañada shifts its focus for a clash with No. 4 Great Oak in the championship game at noon Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
With multiple factors weighing on the Spartans’ shoulders — the fact that it’s the program’s first final and the fact that the stage is set at famous Chavez Ravine — La Cañada coach Matt Whisenant has looked to rewire his team in the days leading up to the program’s benchmark moment.
“Mentally, it’s tough,” said Whisenant, a former major-league player who enters his second CIF championship after leading Village Christian to a Division V final in 2014. “I think we’ll just talk about what it takes to stay in the moment and practice it. You work on your breathing then you’re focused on the task at hand as opposed to all the surroundings.
“It’s easy to get caught up in it if you let it. But if you practice that type of mentality where you’re slowing things down and concentrating on that pitch or that swing or that ground ball, it helps you focus and hone in on what you need to do.”
The Spartans (22-7), who won the Rio Hondo League championship, hope they have had enough patience and preparation for the final. After a 14-0 first-round win against Windward, La Cañada went the distances in extra innings in back-to-back playoff games.
Both games were decided by one run, with a 2-1 victory against Warren in nine innings in the second round and 2-1 quarterfinal triumph against Ocean View in 11. The Spartans then put up five runs in the third inning, six in the fifth and belted out a pair of home runs in their 13-2 semifinal victory against Oak Hills.
“It’s feels amazing to know that it’s the first time in program history,” La Cañada third baseman Tai Walton said. “We’re not going there to play there, we’re going there to win. Hopefully we’ll pull out the win and an awesome experience out it.”
Great Oak (22-9-1) will make its first finals appearance since 2006. The Wolfpack tied for second in the Southwestern League and dispatched Apple Valley (11-0), Long Beach Poly (6-1), Northview (4-3) and Yorba Linda (3-1) in the postseason.
The Spartans are likely to face Great Oak pitcher Cameron Mabee, who owns a 1.17 earned-run average. Mabee pitched a shutout game through five innings against Apple Valley in the first round of the playoffs and gave up three runs against Northview in the quarterfinals.
The Spartans are batting .278 as a team on the season, with the senior contingent of San Jose State-bound Ryan Graves (.444; 16 runs batted in), Walton (.333; 18 RBI) and Connor Buchanan (.310; 24 RBI) leading the way.
“We’ve had a couple of games where we’ve been fantastic and we’ve had a couple of games where we’ve struggled against high-end pitching,” said Whisenant, who graduated from La Cañada in 1989 and appeared in playoff quarterfinals in 1987 and 1988 with the Spartans. “You can never get enough swings. You can never get enough batting practice with a purpose.
“We definitely need to continue to capitalize on momentum as far as swinging the bat well right now. We’ll continue with that and have a good approach and understand what the pitcher’s trying to do.”