Inland Empire: North baseball team clinches first league title since '97

RIVERSIDE — This wasn’t just any post-game dog pile.

The Riverside North baseball team had waited 14 years to celebrate another league championship, and almost let their opportunity slip away Thursday, allowing three runs in the top of the seventh inning against visiting Riverside King before holding on for a 5-4 victory in the Big VIII League finale.

North starting pitcher Jack Johnson talked his way into coming out for the seventh, despite throwing 90 pitches to that point. He allowed a home run to Brandon Camp on the first pitch of the inning and the junior left-hander immediately gave way to senior right-hander Mario Morales.

Following a one-out error and a walk, Shane Mardirosian singled to right field to drive in a run and the remaining runners advanced to second and third on an ill-advised throw home. Morales then balked while preparing to pitch from the wind up, scoring another run and moving the tying run to third base.

However, Morales got cleanup hitter Pat Debonis to hit a hard grounder to the left of third baseman Evan Perez, who made a nice play to field the ball, held Mardirosian at third and then threw out Debonis at first for the second out of the inning. Andrew Alvarez then popped out to first to end the game and trigger North’s long-anticipated celebration.

“Two years ago, we started seven freshmen on varsity,” North coach Steve Madril said shortly after dodging a bucket of ice. “We knew two years from then we’d have a pretty good team. Luckily, this was the year we were waiting for.”

Two years ago, the Huskies finished 4-24, losing their final 14 games. Last season, they finished last out of eight teams in the Big VIII League.

“We took our bruises,” said Johnson, who improved to 8-1.

The Wolves also finished 10-4 in league play and will share the league championship with North. However, the Huskies will be the league’s No. 1 representative for the Southern Section Division 1 playoffs beginning next week because they won both meetings against King this season.

North gave Johnson a cushion by scoring two runs in the first inning. With one out and runners on second and third, Perez hit a high fly to shallow center. Alvarez, playing shortstop, appeared to have trouble with the sun and the ball fell for a single, scoring the first run. Andrew Saucedo then singled up the middle for the second.

The Huskies added two more runs in the fourth on a throwing error by King starting pitcher Eric Geiger, who rushed a throw to first after fielding a bunt and the ball skipped into foul territory, allowing pinch-runner Isias Avalos to score from second. A sacrifice fly brought home the fourth run of the game.

North stretched its lead to 5-0 on an RBI double by Steven Pena in the fifth inning, a run that turned out to be the difference maker.