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Throughout the season, the Santa Rosa Junior College baseball team has clearly shown its strength against lower-tier teams.

The Bear Cubs were 17-1 against teams in the middle to bottom half of the Big 8 Conference and the squad averaged 8.3 runs per game while giving up only 3.2 runs.

But against the No. 2 and 3 teams in the conference? Different story.

The Bear Cubs lost their March series with Sacramento City College 2-1, getting dropped 7-3 and 10-3 before winning the third match up 4-1. It was the same story against vaunted San Joaquin Delta in April, when Santa Rosa lost 10-2, won 5-3 and then fell 4-3.

So when the Bear Cubs dispatched Delta last weekend at Cook Sypher Field, winning the NorCal Sectional series 2-1 to advance to their second consecutive California Community College Athletic Association Final Four, there was a feeling that the Bear Cubs had cleared a hurdle, that they were ready.

Ready to defend their state championship of 2016, ready to go back to back.

Freshman Cole Brodnansky, a two-time Press Democrat All-Empire Small School Player of the Year out of Clear Lake High and a first-team All-Big 8 pick at designated hitter, called it “an edge.”

“We knew we had to get better. We knew we had to come out with an edge to ultimately win the series, and it was do-or-die baseball, whether it was to go to the state championship or not,” he said. “We knew we had to have that edge and show up to play.”

The Bear Cubs beat the Mustangs 8-2 in the opener, fell 8-6 and then guaranteed a return trip to the Final Four in Fresno this weekend with a 5-0 win Sunday. It was no small feat.

“Delta is unbelievably talented,” coach Damon Neidlinger said. “This last series was an absolute war and great baseball.”

The Mustangs have seven or eight pitchers who throw 87 to 91 mph, Neidlinger said.

“It’s guy after guy after guy,” he said.

But Neidlinger guessed that losing the regular season series to Delta and even to Sac City, teams that ended up finishing No. 2 and 3 respectively in the Big 8 behind the Bear Cubs, might have been just the kick in the teeth his team needed.

He recalled this week addressing his team on the bus after the Delta series in April.

“I said, ‘You are good enough, you haven’t lost enough,’” he said.

But make no mistake — Neidlinger doesn’t want his 35-9 team to start losing now. The Bear Cubs travel to Fresno City College Friday to open the Final Four against El Camino. Also in the mix are the Grossmont College Griffins and the Ohlone College Renegades.

In the Final Four, it’s no longer best of three, but a double elimination tournament.

“You can lose and you have to play 30 minutes later,” Neidlinger said. “You have to have some resiliency. You have to have some determination. You have to get rid of the bad things that happen.”

The Bear Cubs will rely on sophomore shortstop Matt Kimura, the Big 8 defensive MVP who prepped in Hawaii, as well as sophomore Garrett Hill, an Analy grad who is co-pitcher of the year. Hill is 7-0 with an earned run average of 2.78.

And it was Hill who proved crucial in the third and deciding game against Delta.

“Garrett ended up pitching an unbelievable game,” assistant coach Ben Buechner said. “He had all three of his pitches working.”

Big, too, has been Montgomery grad Josh Lenney, a Big 8 first-team pick at the utility spot, hitting .272 in conference.

Lenney has banged out five homers in the postseason.

Neidlinger, who said his team is almost painfully calm, said his guys will need to maintain that cool — with a little dose of looseness and freedom — if they want to repeat.

So for Neidlinger, this week has been about “getting guys hopefully feeling really good about what they are doing.”

That is where experience comes into play. The Bear Cubs can’t afford to have the bright lights of the Final Four freak them out. And despite being reigning champions, only five guys on the current roster made the trip to Fresno last year.

“It is a big stage, so it’ll be something to get used to,” said sophomore reliever Jared Noonan, who prepped at Montgomery and earned second-team All-Big 8 honors. “But I think that they’ll be able to handle it and the guys that have already been there can obviously handle it, so I’m feeling pretty confident.”

They’ll need to be confident.

The Bear Cubs will first face No. 2 seed El Camino College, winners of the South Coast Conference Southern Division. The Warriors were the giant killers of the south, knocking off the top-ranked team in California, Orange Coast College, on the road early in the playoffs.

“I think there are 88 teams or 90 teams in the state,” Neidlinger said. “It’s friggin’ harder than hell to friggin’ do this.”

That said, “There are only four teams that get to experience it.”

Count the Bear Cubs among them. And after the meat grinder of the Delta series, don’t count the Bear Cubs out.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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