STOCKTON, Calif. — A weekend of firsts for the Saint Mary’s baseball team culminated Saturday in the program’s first-ever West Coast Conference Tournament championship, and with it, the program’s first-ever berth into the NCAA Tournament.
The Gaels’ offense stayed hot in the West Coast Conference championship game, as top-seeded SMC scored 13 runs on 13 hits to beat No. 3 seed Gonzaga 13-4 for the second straight day and win the 2016 WCC Tournament title at Banner Island Ballpark.
Saint Mary’s (33-23) will find out where it is headed for its first trip to the NCAA Regionals at 9 a.m. Monday when the NCAA Baseball Tournament Selection Show is televised on ESPNU. The 2016 WCC regular season champion Gaels set WCC Tournament records for runs scored (34) and were one hit shy of tying the tournament record for hits with 42 en route to sweeping to the tournament title with a perfect 3-0 record.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Valenzuela. “That team is a special team over there, and even with that lead I didn’t feel safe until the last out was made. This tournament thing, I said it before, you just never know what can happen. I’ve been through some crazy games and you’ve just got to continue playing like it’s 0-0. We did that. I’m proud of our guys. When they got two runs they came back and got two runs, so I credit these guys for a great weekend.”
The Gaels did it with the bats again Saturday, jumping out to an 8-0 lead in the first two innings. SMC put up a six-spot on the scoreboard for the second straight day against the Bulldogs (35-19), scoring six in the second inning. Three came off the bat of Jackson Thoreson with his first hit of the tournament – a three-run home run to right-center field.
Zach Kirtley was named Most Valuable Player of the WCC Tournament after hitting .588 (10 for 17) with six RBIs, four runs and three doubles. He had the game-winning hit in Thursday’s 8-7 11-inning walk-off victory over Pepperdine and RBI hits in all three games. Anthony Villa (.667, home run, four RBIs, four runs), Brett Rasso (.500, six runs scored) and Nate Nolan (two home runs, seven RBIs) were also named to the All-Tournament Team.
“From a team standpoint, not just myself, I couldn’t be more proud of us for staying behind each other when times were bad,” said Kirtley. “We worked our tails off to get here and I think we deserve every bit of it.”
Kirtley entered the tournament mired in a long slump. After an 11-game hitting streak from March 24-April 14 in which he hit .545 with 10 RBIs and eight doubles, Kirtley batted just .157 over his next 23 games. But in three WCC Tournament games, he raised his season batting average 23 points to a team-best .326.
“That’s on my teammates,” said Kirtley about him surviving his tough stretch. “Good times or bad, we’re here for each other. I was going through the bad times there and they were there for me every step of the way. I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Saint Mary’s got another quality start on the mound, this time from righty Cameron Neff. Neff (6-3) threw six innings, allowing three runs on five hits and striking out eight. Drew Strotman earned his second save of the season with three effective innings to close out the win. The final out to clinch the championship came when Gonzaga leadoff batter Sam Brown flew out to right fielder Anthony Gonsolin, ending the top of the ninth and giving Saint Mary’s the trophy.
“I think the talent was there,” said Valenzuela about the Gaels’ postseason prospects. “I think these guys had to believe that they could do it. You’re going to a place that traditionally hasn’t been to the postseason just yet; it’s not about the players, the players are good players. They have to believe it mentally, and I think that’s where we got over the hump a little bit is that, ‘Hey we can do this. We can play. We can beat teams and we can be a regional-type team,’ and we’re going to put them through hard workouts and a tough fall and grind on them. That way when you get in these situations and you’re playing good teams and you have some tough ups and downs, you’re willing to fight through it.”
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