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Westview baseball team punched Class 6A state championship ticket with Cox, timely offense

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Westview baseball team beat West Salem to advance to the Class 6A state championship game for the first time since 2011.

This was for the past second-round upsets, the quarterfinal curses, the semifinal ambushes.

Over the past five years, the Westview baseball program was seemingly cursed by the perils of the postseason, the pitfalls of the recurrently cruel one-and-done playoff format. Untimely errors. Flare-ups on the mound. Cold bats. Bolt from the blue underdogs. The Wildcats, for all their future Division One stars, collegiate signees, all-state athletes and Metro League banners, could not break through to the Class 6A state championship game.

It's a weight that's been passed down from year-to-year, from one team to the next, until the duty of exorcising those playoff ghosts fell at the feet of this season's senior-laden, uber-talented squad that busted up the Metro, raced to 23 regular season wins and claimed the No. 1 seed in the 6A field.

The pressure mounted from round-to-round as the Wildcats eluded Century in the second round and sidestepped West Linn in the quarters to set up a semifinal square-off with West Salem on Tuesday.

But Groundhog Day this was not.

There's something different about this squad compared to seasons' past. Maybe it's the chemistry that's hard to define but easy to see on the field. Or the joy this group gets from celebrating each other's successes. Perhaps it's the right combination of clutch, gifted players and panache that's apparent each time the Wildcats take the grass. They're equally as talented as their predecessors, but unflinching in the line of playoff fire.

When it was time to clutch up, Westview was ready to quash those playoff demons once and for all.

Behind the cool right arm of Jacob Cox and an auspicious offensive output, the Wildcats took down the Titans, 4-1, at Westview High to punch their ticket to the 6A state title game against defending state champion Clackamas on Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer at 5 p.m.

"We've had it tough the last couple of years...but finally getting to this point, I feel like it's finally our year," Westview senior second baseman Ben Braukmann said. "The biggest thing is we don't want to lose. If the ball game is close, we're always going to find a way to win it. We don't fold under pressure or let anything get to us. We didn't let the big moments get to us."

"It's not a 'me' type of team, it's about everyone," Cox said. "We pick each other up when we're down. We've faced a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. But we have great chemistry and a lot of trust in all of our guys."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview senior second baseman Ben Braukmann tries to turn a double play against West Salem in the 6A semifinals.

Cox was fantastic on the mound, hurling a complete game, four-hitter with zero earned runs allowed. West Salem doubled to lead off the game and scored on a Wildcat error. The rest of the way, the right-handed Cox allowed just three men on base, none of which made it into scoring position.

"(Cox) is a hell of a pitcher," Braukmann said. "We're best buds. We play catch every day. We believe in him 100 percent and know he's going to have his best stuff. As long as we're behind him, we know we have a good ball game."

In the biggest game of his career, Cox seized the moment, pounding the zone, relying on a defense that sparkled with web gems throughout. Senior catcher Carter Sakamoto made a sensational diving catch behind the dish, throwing off his mask, finding a wayward pop-up in the swirling wind and lunging to snag it for the third out of the second inning. Shortstop Willie Weiss sprawled out to his left and robbed a sure single to center in the fifth. That happened just moments after Sakamoto gunned down a base stealer trying to swipe second. In the sixth, the Wildcats threw a ball away trying to turn a double play, but freshman first baseman Mason Guerra hustled after the errant toss and fired a rope to Braukmann at second for the inning-ending forceout. Third baseman Mante Woods was stellar at the hot corner as well, fielding a number of tough hops inside the infield and nabbing go-ahead runners at second and first.

"I knew my defense was going to step up for me and make some big plays," Cox said. "(West Salem) hit a few balls hard, but I'm just glad my team stepped up behind me on offense and defense. My guys trusted me and I trusted my guys. There was a lot of confidence through the whole team. We were never nervous or anxious about anything. We just play how we do."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview senior Jacob Cox was great in the 6A semifinals against West Salem, throwing a complete game four-hitter.

Cox, a ground ball pitcher who pitches to contact and lets his defense work, gave his infield and outfield plenty of routine plays to make as well while mixing in a couple of punchouts along the way.

"(Cox) is a hell of a pitcher," Braukmann said. "We're best buds. We play catch every day. We believe in him 100 percent and know he's going to have his best stuff. As long as we're behind him, we know we have a good ball game."

In the playoffs, sometimes a team needs a little luck along the way to propel it onward. Those breaks always seemed to steer clear of the Cats in the past, who fatefully found different ways to bow out of the "second season" in gut-punching fashion. But for once, finally, Westview caught some good fortune. With Braukmann on third and Sakamoto on second with two outs in the bottom of the second, Guerra got under a Titan pitch that looked like the sure third out of the inning. But the West Salem second baseman, backtracking from the infield dirt to the grass, tripped and toppled to the ground as the ball luckily plopped between the befallen infielder and incoming right fielder. Braukmann scored and Sakamato, running on contact with two outs, came home for the go-ahead score to give Westview a 2-1 lead.

"I thought (Guerra) was out, but then I saw the crowd go crazy and thought 'Oh, I gotta go,'" Sakamoto said with a laugh. "I knew we had the game after that. With elimination games, all it takes is one big hit, one big break and you're done. We just try to play as hard as we can and if falls our way, it falls our way."

Luck, some would say, is when preparation meets opportunity. Braukmann put the sequence in motion by singling to center, moving to second on a wild pitch and stealing third. Sakamoto walked and stole second to set up runners in scoring position for Guerra, who put the ball in play with the mile high pop up that put Westview in the driver's seat. Situational baseball, stuff Cox says Westview goes over every day in practice, came into play when the Wildcats least expected it.

"That was the turnaround point," Braukmann said. "We really started getting the momentum and it was definitely going our way after that."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview senior catcher Carter Sakamoto gloves a pop up against West Salem in the 6A semifinals.

The big inning or the huge momentum-swinging hit like Guerra's bases-clearing double against West Linn never came for the Wildcats. The strings of extra bases and trains of runs weren't as prevalent as they were in prior rounds. Rather, Westview executed station-to-station baseball, manufacturing runs, getting guys on base, over and around by any means necessary. In the fourth Braukmann singled and stole second with two outs. Then, Sakamato slapped a bouncing ball single through the third base-shortstop hole that scored Braukmann to go up 3-1. Weiss, with the bags full and one out in the fifth, drove home Williamson with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1. Nothing too fancy, nothing too explosive. With Cox slicing and dicing and the defense barricading the lot, Westview only needed to parcel out a few scores to keep the Titans away.

"What's special about our group is we create our own momentum," Sakamoto said. "In past years, I feel like teams would get up and kind of give up. But we trust each other. We trust that we'll score runs and believe in that."

Saturday will be Westview's first title appearance since 2011, which is also the last time the Wildcats won the state crown. History, Westview hopes, will repeat itself on the state stage. This has been the goal since Braukmann and many of the current Wildcats were part of Sun Park Little League, as young tykes dreaming of traveling to Volcanoes Stadium and winning a state title. Now they're a game away.

"All we've ever wanted was to play in the state championship," Braukmann said. "It's a dream to come true. We're not going to take it for granted. We're going to come out firing. We're going to play as hard as we can and be ready to go."

The Cavs are a perennial state title entrant who have reached Volcanoes Stadium three times in the past five years. Clackamas eliminated Westview in the 6A quarters last year en route to the Cavs' state banner. Then, the Wildcats were the underdog, going on the road in a tough 2-1 defeat. Now they're the favorite, seeking retribution.

"It'd be great to get some revenge," Sakamoto said. "They're a great ball club. They play hard and fight until the end. If we play like we've been playing all year, we have a pretty good chance to beat them."

Weiss, the two-time Metro Pitcher of the Year and recent 6A first-team all-state selection and Gatorade Player of the Year, will get the ball on the bump. The playoff fiends are behind Westview. Now it's time to go get a ring with Weiss leading the charge.

"There's nobody I'd rather have on the hill," Sakamoto said. "He competes his butt off every time and always gives us a chance to win. We just need to back him on offense. We won't change anything. We'll keep having fun with it, keep playing hard and see what happens."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview seniors Ben Braukmann and Tyler Antich look to Carter Sakamoto after taking a 2-1 lead against West Salem.

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