Benefield: Credo High celebrating a milestone with NCS baseball win

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It wasn’t so long ago that Credo High School athletic director Kim Holland had trouble scheduling games for the Gryphons’ baseball team because of, well, that pesky mercy rule. It seems the Gryphons struggled to be competitive early on.

Credo, a Waldorf-inspired high school in Rohnert Park, opened in 2011 and spent the first couple of years as an independent athletic program. That meant they were not in a league and Holland had to schedule games school by school. It also meant other schools could say ‘No thanks’ to games. And they often did.

It also meant victories in those early days had to come in ways other than the traditional win-loss column.

“They’d hit the ball and the parents would go crazy,” she said of Credo fans in the beginning. “If they got on base, it was insanity.”

Boy, have times changed. And Holland gives head coach John Aliotti a lot of the credit.

“John came three years ago and totally built the program from the ground up,” she said.

And by “up” she likely means this: On Saturday, the second-seeded Credo Gyphons beat the No. 1 seed South Fork Cubs 8-3 to win the North Coast Section Division 6 baseball title. It’s the first section title in any sport in school history.

“It’s a big deal,” she said.

From the opening bell of the season, Aliotti felt the team had the tools to earn the school’s first banner, but he didn’t make it a focus of too much discussion. Plus, he wasn’t too far removed from the pain of losing in the first round of last year’s NCS tournament despite having secured the No. 3 seed.

So yes, Aliotti was a believer that his crew could make history, but no, he wasn’t keen to talk much about it.

“We didn’t talk about it a lot, but they knew,” Aliotti said. “They very much wanted it. That was one of the things that was driving them.”

Instead, they focused on what Aliotti deems “the little things.”

“You can’t hit a six-run homer. Don’t try to get three outs on a throw to first,” he said. “You have picked 1,000 ground balls, you have caught 1,000 pop flies. You fight pressure by rising against it. You rise by doing all of the little things you know how to do.”

The Gyphons finished second in the North Central League II and were 12-5 coming into the playoffs. They were also feeling confident, according to junior center fielder Cole Gregory.

“I felt kind of a difference over the whole team,” he said. “Everyone just seemed ready. Everyone was into it.”

But the Gryphons came into South Fork knowing very little about the defending Division 6 champion Cubs other than that their shining star was senior pitcher and cleanup hitter C.J. Van Meter.

“We had very little,” Aliotti said. “It was all stats. We knew their pitcher was very good. His stat lines were quite shocking.”

Shocking: Van Meter, had a 0.11 ERA with a 6-2 record for the Cubs. On offense, he was hitting .423, with 21 RBIs and two homers in 52 at-bats.

“The movement was the thing,” Aliotti said. “His speed was good, but that movement made it very hard.”

But Aliotti credited his team with the patience at the plate and the ability to figure out a very good pitcher.

Gregory, for one, struck out in his first at-bat, but then settled in and found success against Van Meter.

“I was a little antsy, you could say,” Gregory said of his first at-bat. “Then I went up there thinking, ‘This was the championship game.’ I started a rally and everyone was just hyped.”

Gregory ended the outing with 2 RBIs.

At the plate, Van Meter was so central to the Cubs’ offense that Aliotti made the call to walk him in the bottom of the fifth inning with the Gryphons up 3-1. The Cubs had a guy on first and there were two outs, so Aliotti sent Van Meter to first on a pass and added that he was promptly and roundly booed by the hometown fans.

“The boos were loud,” he said. “I was very unpopular. When they scored, the cheers were massive. It was lively.”

But Aliotti said Van Meter had earned his respect and the move proved a smart one for the Gryphons.

“We got out of the inning,” he said.

The atmosphere at South Fork’s ballpark was just fine by senior Claude Pepe.

“Honestly, I love that environment when you are the villain, almost,” he said. “Coming to someone’s hometown and just that feeling that you can’t lose anything — they have everything to lose.”

Coming into the playoffs, and for the first time all season, perhaps, Aliotti was happy for the rain. The rain delays ended up helping the Gyphons in the end when they had a massive break between a playoff game Monday and the championship game Saturday.

That allowed both their intended starter on the mound, Gabe Wong, and their backup, Pepe — the guy who pitched a shutout in the Gyphons’ 7-0 semifinal win over No. 3 seed Point Arena High — to rest.

Wong had struggled with an injury and Pepe could use a couple of days off after going a full outing in the semifinals.

So when the rain came, Aliotti was almost giddy. Time, it seems, was the one thing the Gryphons couldn’t plan for but would certainly, and gladly, accept.

“The rain that hit again in the playoffs absolutely played to our advantage,” he said.

“I was pretty much wide open for Saturday,” he said. “If Gabe struggled, I had Claude for three innings. It was all hands on deck and everybody else was ready.”

Turns out, Aliotti didn’t need the flexibility. Wong pitched a full game and got the win. His pitch limit was 110 and he threw 104 against the Cubs.

“His curveball is very good, which is why he was going to get the final game,” Aliotti said.

After the final out, it was pure jubilation, Aliotti said.

“They rush out of the dugout and meet right there — we were on the first base line, water bottles are shaking, they were just a big, hopping mass,” he said.

But sophomore Gabe Stein was jumping up and down with a little something extra in his uniform.

When the final Cubs batter popped one up to him and he caught the last out, the sophomore immediately tucked the ball away.

“Gabe immediately put the ball in his back pocket,” Aliotti said. “He gave it to me.”

For the coach, it was a prize three years in the making. For Credo High, it was eight. And for the Gryphons, it feels like light years away from the mercy-rule losses.

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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