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Historic championship run comes to tough end for La Cañada baseball

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La Cañada High’s Josh Gray reacts to striking out to end Saturday’s CIF Southern Section Division III championship game against Great Oak at Dodger Stadium.
(Miguel Vasconcellos)

A dream season for the La Cañada High baseball team came crashing down due to one nightmare inning Saturday afternoon.

The Spartans’ bid for a first-ever CIF Southern Section championship was derailed as Temecula Great Oak scored seven runs in the fourth, while La Cañada was one-hit in an eventual 7-0 defeat in the Division III final at Dodger Stadium.

La Cañada concludes an otherwise wonderful season with a 22-8 record, a second Rio Hondo League title won over three years and advancement to the program’s first CIF-SS championship game. Oh, and the Spartans did play in a World Series venue too.

“I just let them know, don’t let today define you,” La Cañada coach Matt Whisenant said of his postgame speech. “Today was tough, but this entire year they did an incredible job. We’ve been doing this since August and I couldn’t be more [proud] of the kids and especially the seniors that set the standard here.”

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Great Oak (24-10-1), which tied for second in the Southwestern League, collected five of its nine hits and all its runs in a wild fourth inning.

The Wolfpack sent 12 batters to the plate, scoring seven runs on five hits, two walks and one error, while chasing Spartans ace Ryan Graves.

Maybe the most frustrating stat for the Spartans in that inning was four walks that resulted in one hit, another batter reaching safely on a squeeze, one costly error and two sacrifices that contributed to four runs and kept the inning going.

“When you make mistakes, good teams like that capitalize,” Whisenant said. “That’s exactly what they did. They got guys in scoring position and they did what they’ve been doing all year, which is moving guys over and causing havoc. We had a hard time with it today.”

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The inning’s biggest hits came via run-scoring singles from Luke Jepsen and Josh Paino and a two-run single from Cameron Mabee, Great Oak’s ace, who turned in a stellar effort.

Mabee finished two for four with a double and two runs batted in, while the Cal Poly Pomona-commit tossed a complete-game one-hitter with eight strikeouts and one walk.

Mabee was given three lives to begin the fourth inning as he had two foul balls dropped by La Cañada fielders.

He took advantage of the gifts and roped for a double to center that started the faithful inning.

Mabee’s extra-base hit was one of only two hard-hit balls in the inning, as the San Jose State-bound Graves was eventually pulled thanks in part to bunts, fielder’s choices and singles.

“It’s a tough situation because it didn’t even feel like I was giving up that many runs,” said Graves, who allowed seven runs (three earned) on seven hits with one strikeout in 3 2/3 innings. “Guys dropped down bunts and sometimes that’s the way baseball goes. It’s extremely humbling.”

Graves was replaced by Connor Buchanan, who tossed 3 1/3 scoreless innings with two hits, two walks and two strikeouts.

Perhaps La Cañada’s bright spot came in the bottom of the sixth when first baseman Zach Feehan laced a 1-1 fastball to center for a single to lead off and break up Mabee’s perfect-game effort.

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“All I wanted to do was get myself on base because I did not want [Mabee] to have a perfect game in a championship game,” Feehan said. “He left the ball over the plate and I put it into the right-center gap.”

La Cañada eventually put two runners on with a walk, but Mabee escaped the jam with a two-out strikeout.

“It didn’t matter losing that perfect game,” Mabee said. “All that mattered was getting a win, getting a championship.”

For a La Cañada program that finished second-to-last in the Rio Hondo League during the freshman seasons for Buchanan, Graves, Tai Walton and Feehan, the end of the road wasn’t great. Yet, the ascent was historic.

“The group that came in as freshmen had the idea of putting this program on the map,” Graves said. “We accomplished that and we’re here.”

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