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Prep baseball: Ukiah’s playoff magic carries Wildcats past Casa Grande into NCS title game

For the first time in over a decade, the Ukiah High baseball team will be playing for a section title.

The Wildcats’ Cinderella postseason run continued on Wednesday as they upset host Casa Grande 5-4 in the semifinals of the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs. With the win, the ninth-seeded Wildcats (19-9) will be making their first appearance in a section championship game since 2007 and will be looking to capture the program’s first section title in school history.

Standing in their way is No. 3 seed Petaluma (21-8), the champions of the Vine Valley Athletic League. The Trojans beat No. 7 seed Redwood 5-2 in their semifinal on Wednesday and will also be looking to make some history. Petaluma last won a section title in 1980 and last appeared in a section title game in 1998.

The Division 2 title game will be at Petaluma High School on Saturday at 1 p.m.

In the semis on Wednesday, Ukiah senior Jace Pullins added his name to the growing list of heroes for Ukiah this postseason, breaking a 4-4 tie in the top of the seventh with a one-out RBI single to plate the winning run.

“Walking up I was like, ‘Well, let’s not line out two more times,’” recalled the senior infielder, whose go-ahead knock in the seventh was just his second base hit of the playoffs. “I had two line-outs this game, but that hit felt great. My whole plan was to just get the ball down and score the run.”

Senior Caleb Ford then closed out the fourth-seeded Gauchos (19-9) with a perfect seventh. Ford was clutch in relief of starter Luke Schat — who struck out four and allowed seven hits and one earned run in 4⅔ innings but left in a 4-4 ballgame — allowing just one base runner over 2⅓ innings with a strikeout to earn the win.

“In the seventh we knew we had to hit, and that’s how we win a ballgame right there,” Ford said. “Jace coming in clutch with that base hit to left, scoring, got us hyped, and we knew we had momentum going into the bottom of the seventh and we knew we could close it out and get the job done.”

Ford’s relief outing was key in securing the win. Before he entered in the fifth, Casa Grande had stormed back to tie the game at 4-4 with three straight two-out singles. The Gauchos had trailed 4-2 entering the inning.

Sophomore Austin Steeves, who went 3 for 4 with an RBI, lined a shot to center to score Kaden Ramirez to make it 4-3 before Dylan Petersen, who went 1 for 3 with two RBIs, scored Steeves from second on a ground ball to right to tie the game at 4-4.

Casa Grande senior pitcher Russell Freedheim was also key in the comeback. He replaced starter Nick Tobin facing a 3-1 deficit with no outs in the second but finished the game with four hits, a run and five strikeouts in six innings of relief.

Both teams traded scoreless frames in the sixth before the Wildcats made their final push to open the seventh. Kessler Koch, who had a two-run double in the first to help Ukiah open up an early 3-0 lead, was hit by a pitch with one out and then made it to second when Canyon Loflin reached on an infield error.

The next batter was Pullins, who sent the first pitch he saw into left field to bring in Koch standing up.

“We hit the right pitch at the right time,” said Ukiah head coach Aaron Ford. “That’s just the game.”

Over these section playoffs, Ukiah has pulled off three one-run road game upsets. It beat No. 8 seed Vintage 1-0 behind a three-hit shutout from Schat in the opener before downing No. 1 seed Marin Catholic 1-0 last Saturday in the quarterfinals with a four-hit shutout from Austin Ford.

It’s been a memorable run, to say the least, for this scrappy group that finished third in the North Bay League-Oak.

“I’m just really super proud,” said Aaron Ford. “I’m surprised I’m not crying like I was Saturday. I was, I mean I was bawling, because these guys have worked their tails off and a lot of the time you don’t see that work, you don’t appreciate it, but I do because I asked them to compete, and I asked them to do their job and they’re loyal kids.

“It’s a humbling experience to be in this moment.”

Asked about their remarkable playoff run, Pullins said, “We’re the underdogs. Nobody respects Ukiah, we’re a bunch of blue-collar baseball players, I guess. Nobody respects us, so we gotta earn our respect.

“Nobody even talks about Ukiah, but they’ll be talking about us soon.”

You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or gus.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.

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