'Tight-knit' Rams lose a tight one to defending 6A champions
Central Catholic coach Brian Grant took turns hugging his players after Clackamas eliminated the Rams in a Class 6A quarterfinal on Friday.
Grant started with sophomores and juniors following the 4-2 loss at Clackamas High. The coach worked his way to junior Christian Cooney, who was visibly distraught after surrendering all four runs to the Cavaliers.
Making his way down the left-field line and to the Rams' dugout, Grant then turned to the seniors, whom he called the foundation of his program.
"When I look at the future, and what we want to do, and where we want to be consistently, you need a group that starts," Grant said. "These seniors set the tone, they set the table, and they led by example all the way through.
"The words can't express the gratitude I have for them, and it's like I told them: They're going to look back down the road and see that this program elevated because of them."
Clackamas will move on to face No. 7 South Salem in the semifinals on Tuesday.
Central Catholic, which was ranked sixth by the Oregon School Activities Association, ended its season 24-6.
The Rams' quarterfinal appearance was their first since 2015. Central Catholic was knocked out in the first round in 2016 and 2017.
At the same time Grant was re-tooling the program, the senior class made its way to the varsity.
"Freshman year, we went 20-4 and we knew we had something special," senior catcher Dillon McNeil said. "We've just been so tight-knit."
"I love every single one of these guys," said senior third baseman Connor Schaefer. "They really battled. That's a good team over there."
After consecutive playoff disappointments, the Rams used 3-2 and 6-0 wins over No. 27 Wilson and No. 11 Roseburg to set up an all-Mt. Hood Conference matchup with Clackamas.
The two teams split their regular-season series. The Rams took the first game, 1-0, and Clackamas claimed the second, 9-6.
As the Rams huddled one final time in left field after the final out on Friday, Grant told his team there was no shame in losing to the defending 6A champions.
"I told them going into this game, this was about the most simple game that we could ever be in, because this was going to be about flat-out baseball," he said. "There's no surprises, no secrets between the two teams.
"They made one or two more plays that we we wish we could have had. There is nothing to hang our heads over, and these kids served notice to the state that Central Catholic baseball is going to be a force to reckon with."
The game pitted two of the state's top pitching staffs against each other. Clackamas allowed the fewest runs (55) in 6A in the regular season, and Central Catholic surrendered one or no runs 10 times.
Cavaliers right-hander Tucker Grote gave coach John Arntson his third straight complete game. Junior Jeff Nelson and senior Greg Mehlhaff had tossed complete-game playoff shutouts against No. 35 Forest
Grove and No. 14 Grant on Monday and Wednesday.
Grote scattered eight hits across 105 pitches and struck out five Central Catholic batters. Arntson said Grote labored in the early innings but got better as the game progressed.
"He came up with some big pitches when he needed to," Arntson said. "In that last inning, he re-found his groove. His velocity went up four miles per hour."
On the other side, Cooney did not make it out of the fourth inning. Clackamas kept the pressure on Cooney from the start, loading the bases in the first and third innings. The Cavaliers broke through with two runs in the fourth to take a 4-1 lead.
Cooney, who primarily plays center field, exited after throwing 72 pitches and recording four strikeouts against four walks.
"It's too bad we couldn't make one or two more plays behind him," Grant said, "and that the ball bounced the way it did, because I thought that was one of the better games he's thrown all year. He did everything he could for us, and he's always done everything he can for us."
Cooney sparked the Rams early, lifting a slow, 1-2 curveball from Grote over the left-field fence to put them ahead 1-0 to lead off the game.
He then used a pair of groundouts to wiggle out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the inning. Cooney needed 25 pitches to get out of the frame, however.
As Grote began locating his curveball on the outside corner, Clackamas continued to force Cooney into high-stress situations.
Senior outfielder Ryan Ahlstrom led off the second inning with a single. He advanced to third on consecutive sacrifice bunts, then scored on an RBI double by junior center fielder Grant Schoen.
Rams center fielder Jackson Elder, Cooney's replacement, misplayed the ball, charging too early and allowing it to reach the fence.
Clackamas upped its lead to 2-1 when a two-out wild pitch from Cooney scored catcher Jake Zehr. Zehr singled and worked his way to third after No. 5 hitter Bubba Jaha walked and designated hitter Nate Vaughn laid down a sacrifice bunt.
The Cavaliers used RBI singles from third baseman Alex Claxton to chase Cooney. Zehr added a one-out RBI single to left field off junior Sam Matterazzo, who relieved Cooney. Matterazzo then recorded the next two outs to leave the bases loaded.
Cooney delivered an RBI single in the top of the fifth to pull the Rams within two runs. Center fielder Ted Stephenson singled with one out and advanced to third after second baseman Will Sprouse lined a single to right.
The Rams stranded Cooney and Sprouse to end the threat.
Grote retired six of the final seven batters he faced to finish the game. Arntson said he had a reliever warm in the bullpen during the seventh inning.
"I'll be honest, I didn't know if I wanted Tucker to face Cooney for the fourth time. (But) I could see that he was fired up, and I couldn't not let him go one more guy," Arntson said.
Two of Grote's five strikeouts came in the seventh inning. He punched out Cooney to record the final out.
"He's a big guy, can really get out there and extend. Made it sometimes hard to read the ball off his hand," McNeil said of Grote.
Grant and Arnston said the Cavaliers have enough pitching depth and offensive tools to win a second straight state championship.
The Rams will return 13 players from this year's team. Arntson and McNeil said they expect Central Catholic to again challenge Clackamas for the MHC title and stay atop the RPI.
"Brian's doing a really good job bringing those guys along," Arntson said. "I think they've established themselves as one of the top programs, and they're going to be around for a while."
• South Salem beat visiting crosstown rival Sprague 9-0 on Friday to earn its 5 p.m. Tuesday semifinal date at Clackamas.
In Friday's other 6A quarterfinals, Westview won 5-3 at home over West Linn, and West Salem prevailed 3-2 at home against West Albany. West Salem will visit Westview on Tuesday in the other semifinal.