LOS ANGELES -- It was difficult for Mission Viejo players to keep their eyes off the headlines at the start of the season. Expectations were sky high. All arrows pointed to a happy ending at Dodger Stadium.
The journey was a rocky one but, like expected, Mission Viejo claimed its first ever CIF Southern Section baseball title Thursday night, beating Etiwanda, 6-2, in the Division 2 final. The Diablos (23-13), projected to be one of the top teams in the state, had not reached the title game since 1985, when they lost to Diamond Bar, 2-1.
"It's been a roller coaster ride, really," Mission Viejo head coach Chris Ashbach said. "These are wonderful kids."
Mission Viejo had seven seniors in its batting order plus another senior, Cal State Fullerton-bound Willie Kuhl, toeing the rubber. Kuhl tossed a complete game, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks. He struck out seven.
"I don't even know what to say right now," Kuhl said with a wide smile. "It's hard to describe. It's awesome to be CIF champs. We've been working so hard all season. It's been a bit of a rough season but we really came through in the end."
Kulh retired 15 of the last 17 batters he faced, attacking the zone with hard fastballs knowing he had a cushion to fall back on.
Etiwanda (18-12), despite the loss, was the epitome of a Cinderella story throughout the playoffs. The Eagles, in the finals for the first time in school history, finished third in the Baseline League with an ugly 6-9 mark. They limped into the postseason after losing six of their last eight regular season games. They took flight following an 11-6 win against Tustin in the wildcard round.
Nerves seemed to be a factor early -- at least for the team that wasn't supposed to make it this far. Mission Viejo scored three in the first, capitalizing on an error, a dropped popup in shallow left and a balk. It had the makings of a long, long night, but Etiwanda got used to the bright lights and settled in nicely. They got two runs back in the second, made possible by a Diablo throwing error that could have ended the inning.
The Diablos tacked on a run in the fourth and could have delivered the lethal blow in the fifth, but had to settle for just one after Sean Miller bounced into a force out with the bases loaded. A suicide squeeze laid down by Danny Poe in the seventh basically sealed it.
"We do a lot of that stuff," said Poe, who went 2-for-3. "I just threw the bat out there because I think they were trying to pitch out. I was dreaming of this game since the start of the season."
For the Diablos, preseason dreams became a reality.
"To start the season ranked that high and with all the hype, we may played into it," Kuhl said. "We thought we could just roll out and beat everybody. But it's baseball -- you've got to play the game. We're just playing as a team now. It's awesome to end it like that."