VISALIA — Rick Sawyer played thousands of games in his lifetime, including four years in Major League Baseball as a pitcher for the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres.
However, the 69-year old, fifth-year head coach for Highland said he was more nervous in the dugout on Saturday than any day he spent on the mound as Highland defeated Porterville 8-5 for the Central Section Division III baseball title at Rawhide Ballpark in Visalia.
“This is something new. I played a thousand games as a player,” Sawyer said. “But (never) as a manager. These kids came through. It’s unbelievable.
Also hard to fathom is this is the first baseball championship for Highland, a school that opened in 1970.
“It’s good for the school of Highland,” Sawyer said. “Highland is not known for baseball … It’s good for our program.”
Junior Cade Sakamoto went 5 2/3 innings for Highland and also had two hits and scored twice as the Scots took an early 6-0 lead in the first two innings.
“This feels great. I haven’t been this happy in a really long time,” Sakamoto said. “I am really proud of my team. They fought through the whole game.”
Highland needed that big cushion against the top-seeded Panthers (20-9).
Porterville tacked on a run in the third and two more in the fourth on a two-run single by Daniel Perez to cut the Highland lead to 6-3.
“It’s always tough,” Sakamoto said of pitching with a big lead. “I just tried throwing strikes and letting my defense play behind me.”
The Scots had runners in scoring position when Porterville coach Mike Hill brought in Jacob Hernandez, his ace, in the fourth inning.
Hernandez struck out the side to end the inning.
“I thought we were going to put 15 up, but they brought in (Hernandez),” Sawyer said. “He’s pretty tough. He slowed us down a bit and the guys got a couple of extra runs.”
Highland (27-3) has scored in double digits 19 times this season, so players like Landn Kauk (3-4, RBI) knew there was still more in the tank.
“We just needed to relax,” Kauk said. “That’s what we did.”
Highland adds a run in the fifth on an RBI single by Kauk and Anthony Baldridge (2-3 RBI) walked and scored on a single by Joey Vidal. The late runs were crucial because Porterville added two more in the sixth inning.
Andres Garza replaced Sakamoto in the sixth and struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh, including the final out against Santiago Sanchez that ended the game and started the first title celebration for Highland in 47 years.
“That was so sweet. That was the best feeling of my life,” Kauk said. “I’ve never been that excited. My voice is almost gone. I was so pumped up. We’ve worked for so hard for four years. This is something special.”
Along with the first title in school history, the 27th win is the best in school history that surpassed the previous high of 19 wins set last season.
Last season’s program graduated eight seniors, but returning starters in Kauk, Garza, Anthony Baldridge (2-3) and Chase Morales (RBI single) are leaving a legacy at Highland in their final high school game.
“This team will come back next year with a strong team and come for it again,” Kauk said.