Current Cougar players weren't even born then
Taft College has not made an appearance in the state baseball playoffs in 24 years.
That's nearly a quarter of a century.
But that long drought ends Tuesday when the Cougars host the Los Medanos College Mustangs at Cougar Field. First pitch is at 2 p.m.
“Not a single one of my players was even born the last time Taft was in the playoffs,” said Cougar head coach Vince Maiocco. “That's astonishing.”
TC finished the regular season last week by mucking things up for Central Valley Conference frontrunner College of the Sequoias, taking two out of three and knocking the Giants into a tie for second.
Los Medanos, located in the northern California city of Pittsburg, is runner-up in the Bay Valley Conference with a 14-7 league record – 22-18 overall. The Cougars tied for third with Merced – both teams with 12-9 league marks and 22-18 overall.
The Cougars finished the season by sweeping Merced and winning two of three from Sequoias, a feat that impressed everyone except their coach.
“I knew we were capable of doing that,” Maiocco said.
But doing it is even more impressive because of injuries to key players – primarily sluggers Wes Hebert (.404 batting average, 8 homers, .681 slugging percentage) and Jayce Gardner (.362, 4 homers, .517 slugging).
“They both missed the COS series,” the coach said.
They’re doubtful for today too, but Hebert (hamstring) could be in the lineup as a designated hitter and Gardner (arm) might get a late-in-the-game pinch-hitting role.
Maiocco’s injury problems started early with the loss of No. 1 pitcher Nick O’Conner to an arm injury followed by the loss of two infielders, one of them a middle-lineup hitter.
That’s why other needed to step up, Maiocco said.
“Three of our bench players have really helped us,” he said. “(Kenji) McCarthy, (Jacob) Cruz and (Leonardo) Fontanez have come off the bench and really played well. They have big hearts. On the team they’re known as our Mighty Mights.”
McCarthy, Cruz, Fontanez and Shy are all freshmen.
Maiocco points to a convincing non-conference victory over SoCal powerhouse Mt. San Antonio on March 31 as the catalyst for turning the season around. At the time TC was 12-15 overall and 3-6 in the conference and had lost five in a row. After that the Cougars won 10 of their last 13 games.
“After that game I said, 'I think we're getting there. This could jumpstart us.'And it did exactly that.”
Another key was the emergence of sophomore pitcher Kaivon Kealoha (8-3, 2.60 ERA, a strikeout per inning), who was unstoppable down the final stretch.
“Kaivon is a big reason for our success,” Maiocco said. “And Cassius Shy has developed into a solid No. 2 pitcher. We really have no one for that No. 3 slot.”
Kealoha naturally gets the start Tuesday.
Another major reason for TC’s success is the team’ long-ball hitters. The Cougars are third in the state with 40 homers behind Butte (42) and Canyons (41). Twenty-three of the 40 dingers came in conference action.