Tulare Western High, the ongoing odds-beater in Central Section baseball, climbs to yet another level of competition Wednesday night in the Division I semifinals.
The 27-7 and fourth-seeded Mustangs, elevated after winning D-II in 2014, will play at No. 1 Buchanan (27-4) at 6:30 p.m.
Tulare Western has taken a dramatic route to this point, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh to defeat No. 13 Memorial 4-3 in the first round before remaining home and escaping with a 5-4, 11-inning win over No. 5 Madera in the quarterfinals.
But now to Buchanan, a four-time section champion in the past 10 years and also ranked No. 5 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
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“Buchanan and Clovis are the elite of the elite,” said Tulare Western coach Ken Searcy, including the defending champion and No. 3 Cougars (23-10), who will go to No. 2 Centennial (24-5) at 4:30 p.m. in the other D-I semi.
“Those teams are very well coached, their kids all play on travel clubs, their facilities are the best and they go about things at a level I love. We’re trying to build our program around that. With 1,700 kids, we’ll never have the depth of Buchanan and Clovis, but I believe our boys will compete.”
That was already proven when the Mustangs went 4-2 against Tri-River Athletic Conference competition at the Coca-Cola Classic. They beat Clovis, Clovis North, Clovis East and split with Clovis West.
They lost 5-3 at home to Buchanan in a game Tulare Western led 3-1 entering the seventh. But the Mustangs couldn’t hold on with two of their top pitchers, 2014 Bee All-Star Kobe Portillo (9-1, 2.40 ERA) and Jordan Padilla (5-2, 1.17), in the dugout in street clothes because they would play in a basketball game that night.
Searcy said Monday his staff hadn’t decided on a starting pitcher against Buchanan, with junior Blake Costa (6-2, 2.33) also among the considerations. Another key to the season has been sophomore Elijah Parks (6-1, 1.26), who earned the win against County/Metro Athletic Conference co-champion Madera by giving up only three hits in the final 61/3 innings.
Searcy — 204-117-6 in 10 years at Tulare Western, including 80-22-2 the past three seasons — entered this campaign in comfort regarding his pitching. But there was a concern offensively, having lost mega power from a 29-5-1 team that featured seniors Anthony Avila (.444) and Armando Gallegos (.433), the team’s Nos. 3 and 4 hitters.
But eight of this season’s starters are hitting .300 or better, led by center fielder Daniel Martinho (.429, 29 runs), third baseman Parks (.407), left fielder and leadoff batter Padilla (.404, 28 runs), cleanup batter and right fielder/designated hitter Anthony Pacheco (.333, 24 runs) and first baseman Drew Muller (.311, 26 RBI).
While the numbers are impressive, it’s also no secret Tulare Western didn’t oppose TRAC-like pitching in the East Yosemite League, which includes D-II Tulare, D-III’s Porterville and Monache, and D-IV’s Mission Oak and Delano.
And that’s the problem Searcy has with a section realignment system based on recent performance as opposed to enrollment. Buchanan, conversely, is prepared well for the postseason annually by competing in the TRAC, which is exclusive D-I.
“If equity is the whole point of realignment,” Searcy said, “then you need to put people in equitable leagues. Before the playoffs, we hadn’t seen a D-I team since February. Playing D-III and D-IV teams in league does not prepare our kids properly for the playoffs.”
▪ Finals will basically repeat the inaugural format in 2014 at Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark — Friday with D-V (4:30 p.m.) and D-II (8 p.m.) and Saturday with D-IV (9:30 a.m.), D-III (1 p.m.), D-VI (4:30 p.m.) and D-I (8 p.m.).
Top-seeded Clovis, two steps away from an eighth section title and first since 2007, will play at home today against No. 5 Bullard in a D-I semi at 4:30 p.m.
The 31-6 Cougars, champions of the TRAC, swept the Knights of the CMAC in a March 24 doubleheader, 10-0 and 9-4.
Sixth-seeded Hanford West, promoted after winning a combination of four D-II and D-III championships over the past five seasons, will go to No. 2 Central in the other D-I semi.
Second-seeded Farmersville will play at No. 1 Orange Cove today for the D-VI title.
Elsewhere, top seeds remain standing in D-II (Redwood), D-III (Taft), D-IV (Selma) and D-V (Riverdale).
Zach Mikus and Peter Kuest, who have powered Clovis West to North Area and D-I titles in the past two weeks, and Hanford record-breaking sophomore Lane Pulliam will be the players to beat in today’s section individual championship at Porterville’s River Island Country Club.
The threesome of Mikus, Stockdale’s Jared Kinoshita and Redwood’s Dakota Rhea will open the 53-player field at 10 a.m.
Pulliam, a 2014 Bee All-Star, averaged 68.4 in the West Yosemite League, setting a conference standard previously held by former Lemoore star Cody Neal (69.2). Pulliam will tee off with Exeter’s Drake Jones and Kuest at 10:07 a.m.