Maria Carrillo baseball squad plays for NCS title Wednesday

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Maria Carrillo’s baseball team is clutch.

The Pumas didn’t race through the North Bay League this year — in fact, they finished third in the six-team Oak Division. But they are winning when they need to.

They have one game left, and it’s the most important one of the season.

The Pumas host Benicia at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the North Coast Section Division 2 baseball championship game.

“This is it,” coach Sam Bruno said. “We put a lot of emphasis on the NCS every year in trying to put together the best four games of the tournament. It’s like the World Series of high school baseball.”

Fourth-seeded Carrillo, 19-9 overall, knocked off Arroyo, Marin Catholic and Casa Grande en route to the rain-delayed title game. This game and the D4 title game in Arcata at 7 p.m. are the final high school athletic events of the year.

The Pumas’ three-game winning streak in sectionals is part of a 10-2 streak since mid-April, the only two losses to division champ Cardinal Newman, which as the No. 1 seed in D3 was upset, 11-1, by No. 9 Campolindo in the quarterfinals.

Bruno had a feeling his team would perform when it needed to.

“All year long I’ve known we were one of the best teams around,” he said, “but we just didn’t play consistently enough to prove it. Everyone always hears about Cardinal Newman, and Maria Carrillo is always in the shadows for some reason. But every year we seem to be the last team playing, so it’s one of those things: We’re playing really good at the right time.”

Part of that success comes from experience.

The Pumas returned 10 seniors from last year’s title-game squad and several others have postseason experience, including catcher Kody Kent, second baseman-pitcher Connor Charpiot, first baseman Bruce Cannon and shortstop and leadoff hitter K.C. Kelly.

“All our players are experienced and have been deep in the playoffs,” Bruno said. “They’re executing, they’re playing clutch, they are players who love big moments.

“It seems like the harder the game, the tougher the team, the better we’ve played all year long. … These players, when the moment gets as tough as it does, they rise to the occasion.”

Having been there before is an invaluable asset, Bruno said.

“They know what it takes. They know how intense and aggressive these championship games can be,” he said. “It’s very valuable. I think we’re ready for this moment.”

With just one game left, Bruno doesn’t have much coaching to do. Just put the right players in the right positions for them to succeed.

“I remind them how precious every out is, every pitch is, every play is,” he said.

Among those expected to lead the Pumas is Kelly, the batting leader at .415, while four other regulars are hitting over .310.

Junior Bryce Veler is hitting .344 and when he gets on base, he causes disruptions. He has stolen 23 bases in 24 attempts. Kelly is 13 of 17.

Cannon hits for power and is the team leader in extra-base hits, while Charpiot has a team-high 25 RBI.

“We’re a complete team,” Bruno said. “We have guys that can hit for power, guys who are really fast and guys who battle at the plate and don’t strike out. One through nine, we are among the toughest lineups around.”

The team is hoping to reverse last year’s championship result. After an 11-3 league record and 23-6 overall mark, the No. 2 Pumas met top-seeded Alameda in the title game. Alameda won, 4-3.

If they win the championship, Carrillo will join D6 Credo High as the only other section winner in baseball or softball this season. Three softball teams — D3 Sonoma Valley, D5 St. Vincent and D6 Laytonville — lost in section championships on Saturday.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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