When the McKinleyville High baseball team last faced Fort Bragg it was in the championship round of the Fort Bragg Tournament on March 16.
McKinleyville won that game 5-4, claiming its first Fort Bragg tourney title since 1995 — a year in which the Panthers went on to win a North Coast Section championship.
On Friday No. 2 seeded McKinleyville (21-3) will take on No. 5 Fort Bragg (21-5) again, this time in the semifinal round of the NCS Division-IV playoffs.
On March 16 little separated the two teams. After fighting to a 1-1 tie through four innings Fort Bragg seized a 4-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning, only to give it right back after McKinleyville scored four times in the bottom of the frame to take a 5-4 lead and eventually, the win.
Both coaches agree Friday’s game should play equally as close.
“I would think it’ll be a close game, it’ll come down to pitching depth and who can get a player or two to make a big play,” Fort Bragg’s head coach Roy Perkins said.
McKinleyville’s head coach Scott St. John said much of the same, saying his club will need to “play very well” in order to win.
“They have good pitching and a lot of good hitting. They’re one of the toughest teams we’ve faced this season and we just squeaked by the first time,” he said.
The two teams have put together historic 2019 campaigns in their own right — each has already won more than 20 games this season, a threshold which neither club had eclipsed since the 2004 season (further records were unavailable before this edition went to press).
Ask any baseball coach how a team wins as much as McKinleyville and Fort Bragg have this year, and they’ll all probably tell you the same thing: Pitching and defense.
And these two teams have plenty of both.
McKinleyville’s bullpen, led by ace Cameron Saso along with dependable starters Kyler Carr and Corbin Eichin, and closer Lance Lally (Humboldt County’s own version of Mariano Rivera ) have helped the Panthers to limit opposing teams to 2.58 runs-per-game, including nine shutout victories.
Fort Bragg’s bullpen, built on the strength of left-handed pitchers Jullian Clavelle and Garrett James, has been equally suffocating. Fort Bragg has allowed 2.11 runs-per-game in 2019 and has shutout opposing teams seven times this season.
Clavelle, who’ll get the start against McKinleyville Friday, pitched a pair of no-hitters in consecutive starts against Kelseyville and Cloverdale earlier this season.
“We’ve really leaned on our left-handed starters this season, I think its unusual to have two exceptional lefties. It’s made it hard for other teams this season,” Perkins said. “They’ve really come through for us. The team in general has continued to grow throughout the season. They’ve all been playing together since (little league).”
McKinleyville, however, is no stranger to lefties. Merick Sears, Arcata High’s ace and one of the finest pitchers in NCS D-IV, is a lefty who McKinleyville faced during the season.
“We’ve seen some good lefties this year, I don’t think it’ll be anything new for our guys in that respect,” St. John said.
Eichin will get the start for McKinleyville on Friday. In seven starts this season the sophomore has recorded three wins while amassing a 1.81 ERA, and has tossed 28 strikeouts compared to 22 hits given up.
What really may separate the two teams on Friday doesn’t have much to do with the players at all — well, maybe their cars.
Fort Bragg traveled four hours south to Albany on Wednesday to face No. 4 St. Mary’s in the tournament’s quarterfinal round. Not 48 hours later it will once again hit the road today to drive another three or so hours for Friday’s game.
“I hope the travel doesn’t impact us,” Perkins said. “I think (the team will be fine).”