ATASCADERO — Before the umpire could even turn his shoulder and point out his finger signaling a called strike, the celebration had already begun for the Greyhounds who are headed to the Division 3 CIF Central Section Championship baseball game after defeating Templeton 4-3 in Kidwell Stadium. From what the Atascadero News could gather, this was the first time the Hounds appeared in a CIF semifinal since 1995 and the first time they will get a chance to play for a CIF Championship in baseball in school history.
It was standing-room only at Atascadero on Wednesday afternoon as the North County of San Luis Obispo came together to cheer one of its teams to a CIF title game. There were kids with face paint, pom poms, coordinated cheers and a vibrant mix of oranges and greens as current and former Hounds and Eagles filled the stadium like the electronics sections of a Best Buy on Black Friday.
The Templeton Eagles had their ace on the mound for the big game — senior Justice Gibbons — to face-off against Atascadero’s No. 1 guy — Cade Van Allen. It was a power on power match-up as each pitcher relied heavily on their fastball and their velocity while mixing in the occasional curveball and change-up.
It didn’t take long for this one to get interesting as Van Allen struggled to find his command in the first inning, walking the first two batters for the Eagles and then plunking the third to load the bases with no outs recorded. A passed ball to the backstop brought in a run and suddenly Templeton was in the driver's seat with two on, no outs and a run already home. It looked as though the Hounds might have to go early to their bullpen but Van Allen quickly put that notion to bed as he struck out the next three batters to get out of the inning only trailing 1-0.
“I was so proud of myself to battle back like that,” Van Allen said following the game. “I was struggling with my command in the beginning but I dialed it in, dialed in my mechanics and got out of it with three strikeouts. That gave me so much confidence throughout the game to throw my pitches and be good with what coach was calling and hitting my spots.”
Atascadero responded in the bottom half of the first with back-to-back hits, the second of which was a double by Blake Simonin, giving the Hounds two runners in scoring position with no outs. After a quick pop-out, senior Evyn Lade stepped into the box and hit a slow grounder to the shortstop who came home in an attempt to get the runner but was not in time and Atascadero tied the game at one. Next in the box was Van Allen who contributed to his own cause with a sacrifice fly to right field to take the lead 2-1.
Following a scoreless second inning, the Eagles retook the lead in the third doing all of their damage with two outs. A Gibbons single and a walk put two runners on and Macer Lardner crushed a single to centerfield scoring both runs and sending the third baseline visitor’s bleachers into a frenzy.
Gibbons pitched a scoreless third and scoreless fourth but the Hounds never put their heads down.
“This group has never faltered, they don’t panic,” AHS baseball coach Joe Davis said after the game. “And they know that there are plenty innings left and they grind to the last pitch and that is what makes them special.”
With the top of the order at bat in the fifth, Atascadero got a rally going. A Simonin walk and a Justin Vose single gave the Hounds some baserunners with their hottest hitter, Lade, up next. However, the senior accidentily bunted the ball into play on a check swing advancing the runners but surrendering an important out. Van Allen stepped into the box next looking for his pitch.
“I thought he was going to throw me a curveball and I guessed right,” Van Allen said. “He was slowing down in his velo so I figured we were going to get some more offspeed and I just changed my approach and shortened my swing.”
It was the biggest swing of the game, maybe the season, as the seeing-eye single found its way into left field. The throw to home was late and scooped up by Gibbons, who fired it to second base trying to get Ladel. Gibbons’ throw sailed high and skipped past the center fielder all the way to wall giving Atascadero a 4-3 lead with only six outs to go and the bottom of the lineup due up in the sixth.
Van Allen was pulled after the fifth with 10 strikeouts.
“Cade has the best stuff,” Davis said. “The question is if Cade can come out and deliver that stuff when it counts. We were willing to have a short hook if he was not there and bring Evyn in who has been on fire closing for us and can go deep in extra innings.”
Lade entered the game and pounded the strike zone. The Eagles hit a couple of rockets off Atascadero’s closer but hit them right at players wearing orange caps. Only needing one more strike, Lade threw a fastball outside that caught the corner and the celebration was on.
“It is a dream come true,” Lade said through a smile. “I have always wanted to do this and I am just really glad that for my last year I can go really far with my team.”
To even be in this game was impressive for these two teams that simply refused to quit all year even when the odds seemed stacked against them. Neither team entered the day with a winning record and neither will finish the season with one but it does not matter because they played their best when it mattered most.
“Well as the season has gone on we have talked about being mentally tough,” Davis said after the game. “These guys have really bought in, I give all the credit to them. They have worked really hard but the part that we were missing was the mental part and I think as the beginning of the season came on we were missing that piece. I think a lot of that might have just been them jelling with me and my coaching staff and since that point these guys have been awesome, they are grinders. They work hard and it is nice to see all the work that they are putting in is starting to pay dividends in CIF.”
Both teams began the year struggling, Templeton opened the season 2-8 in their first 10 while the Hounds started 1-9, but finished the year playing in the CIF Central Section semifinals.
“I am super proud of these guys, they came a long way,” Templeton head coach Rob Tompkins said. “We started almost a month and a half behind just on training and agility and for them to respond and have the last three weeks of the season that we had is very promising for next year.”
On Saturday, the Hounds, who are the No. 12 seed, will play for a CIF Championship against third-seeded Bakersfield-Highland at 12:30 p.m. at Fresno State. With Van Allen pitching today, that means that more than likely it will be the junior lefty in Vose on the bump for a chance to win a ring.