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Today’s semifinal games

Montgomery at Maria Carrillo, 4 p.m.

Ukiah at Casa Grande, 4 p.m.

Friday’s championship game

Semifinal winners, 4 p.m. at Cardinal Newman


Tuesday’s semifinal results

Rancho Cotate 6, Maria Carrillo 1

Montgomery 6, Cardinal Newman 2

Thursday’s championship game

Rancho Cotate vs. Montgomery, 4 p.m. at SRJC


Tuesday’s semifinal results

Analy 3, Piner 2

Wednesday’s semifinal game

Petaluma vs. Sonoma Valley, 7 p.m., at Arnold Field, Sonoma

Thursday’s championship game

Semifinal winners, 7 p.m. at Arnold Field, Sonoma


Tuesday’s semifinal results

Petaluma 9, Healdsburg 5

Wednesday’s semifinal game

Sonoma Valley at Analy, 4 p.m.

Thursday’s championship game

Semifinal winners, 4 p.m. at Analy

The drill wasn’t simple. Multiple balls whizzing across the mound, numbers being called out to indicate the direction of the next throw.

You might forgive the Maria Carrillo High School baseball team for the couple of dropped balls that ensued. Monday practice had just started and they were just warming up, after all.

But coach Derek DeBenedetti didn’t like what he saw. He whistled the Pumas in. Brief words. He sent them back out.

After that you could have rocked a baby safely to sleep on the infield. Balls zipped from bag to bag, prompting the pop of the glove and the shout of a number. But one thing was different — no throws were off target. No dropped balls.

“Where we got into trouble, earlier in the season, was defensively, just taking care of the ball,” DeBenedetti said. “I think we lost a few games earlier in the season because we didn’t, defensively, take care of the ball. That has sharpened.”

Monday’s practice was proof positive of that.

The Pumas, loaded with 10 seniors, roared to a 12-2 record in the North Bay League, wrapping up the title and sowing confidence for a North Coast Section playoff run where they will compete in Division 2.

They begin their postseason quest today, hosting No. 4 seed Montgomery in the NBL tournament.

“The talent level we have this year is through the roof. We have a lot of guys with D1 abilities and ability to play at a high level,” said junior leadoff hitter Patrick Gavin. “We are working hard more than anything else and we have just got talent and have got the motivation to win.”

On the senior-laden roster, Gavin has stood out for his offensive prowess.

“Patrick Gavin has probably had the best offensive season of anyone in the NBL,” DeBenedetti said. “He is hitting over .500, has 25 hits in 14 games, 14 RBIs and 17 runs scored. We put him at the top of the lineup halfway through the season and he has been the catalyst and the spark plug.”

Another factor? Andrew Vaughn.

The Cal-bound senior is clearly a baseball talent, but before this season he was rarely used as a pitcher. Not because he didn’t have the goods, but because the Pumas had a sufficient number of hurlers and Vaughn, a varsity player since his freshman year, was needed elsewhere.

Where he’s been needed this year is on the mound.

“He was pretty phenomenal,” DeBenedetti said of Vaughn’s 6-0 record and 0.67 ERA in league.

“We knew he was going to have to shoulder the load,” DeBenedetti said. “We just didn’t know what it would look like but we knew he was capable.”

So did Vaughn.

Turns out the guy who prides himself on being versatile, on being a player his coach can insert anywhere, really wanted to pitch. He even worked out with pitchers — even when he was playing shortstop last season.

“I always considered myself a pitcher,” he said. “I don’t even think I pitched a handful of games until this year. I feel most competitive when I’m on the mound because it’s me versus the guy, just like in hitting.”

DeBenedetti called the Pumas’ pitching the biggest unknown going into the season. Vaughn clearly had the answers.

“He’s been a huge piece” of the Pumas’ success, DeBenedetti said.

DeBenedetti certainly didn’t make it easy on his guys. The preseason schedule was stacked and he sprinkled nonleague games in the middle of the NBL season.

It’s paid off.

The Pumas have emerged from an NBL race in which Casa Grande, loaded with college-bound talent, was considered in many circles a preseason favorite.

But DeBenedetti said he had no doubt his team would be in the chase.

“I wasn’t surprised by our success,” he said. “It’s something I expected, to at least compete. We knew it was going to be a very competitive league. It wasn’t a shoo-in for anybody, but if we played good baseball, that we would put ourselves in position.”

And part of that good baseball was the Pumas playing relaxed. That part has been a battle. At some point in the season, DeBenedetti felt like his team was putting too much pressure on themselves.

“What I keyed on for the guys, just relax and play the game as they prepared themselves to play,” he said.

“They work so hard in practice and they put so much time into their preparing, I just wanted them to trust it,” he said. “Their preparing is where they derive their confidence from; allow yourself to react and play.”

The Pumas have gotten the message.

They are playing confident baseball. It’s now every other team’s job to react.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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