By Nick Giannandrea
Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, College of the Sequoias' baseball team is exactly where it wants to be: sitting alone atop the Central Valley Conference.
The Northern California No. 15-ranked Giants (17-10-1, 11-2) enter a 2 p.m. Thursday home game against Porterville with a one-game lead over No. 6 Fresno City and No. 19 Taft for first place in the CVC.
COS, which also travels to Porterville at 1 p.m. Saturday, is seeking its first conference championship since 2014, and the program's fifth in 26 seasons under coach Jody Allen.
"We're excited about the way we're playing right now," Allen said.
The Giants put themselves in the driver's seat to capture the conference title by winning two of three games against perennial state power Fresno City last week.
Nos. 6-9 hitters Zane Thompson, Ryan Tucker, Isaac Gonzalez and Michael Salazar combined to go 7 for 16 with four RBIs as COS beat the Rams 9-3 on March 26, then Cade Sakamoto struck out 10 in 8 2/3 innings during a 2-1 Giants' victory March 29.
Fresno City won the series finale 13-1 on March 30, but COS bounced back by riding Jacob Hernandez's four-hitter to a 10-0, series-opening win over Porterville on April 2. Hernandez, who struck out seven, was backed by four hits from Andrew Valdez and three RBIs from Salazar as the Giants took over sole possession of first place in the CVC following Taft's 8-7 loss to Merced in 14 innings.
"We went into (conference play) trying to win every series, and we've been able to do that," said Allen, whose team has won at least two of three - if not all three - in COS' first four conference series. "The Fresno series was a big one. It's usually us and them battling toward the top, so now we have the tiebreaker if it comes to that."
COS has turned a corner since the start of Central Valley Conference play March 5, when it clobbered West Hills-Coalinga 31-2 behind two doubles, a triple and eight RBIs from Isaac Gonzalez.
The Giants opened the season 6-8-1 while breaking in freshmen starters at second base (Isaac Gonzalez, out of Redwood High), shortstop (Payton Allen, Golden West), third base (Andrew Valdez, El Diamante; or Tucker, Tulare Western) and center field (Donte Valdez, Redwood) next to returning players in catchers Salazar (Tulare Western) and Brenden Ayres (Exeter), first baseman Jordan Rojas (Mt. Whitney), left fielder Chris Gonzalez (Redwood) and right fielder Zane Thompson (El Diamante).
A stretch where it played six games in eight days was particularly tough on COS, as it went 2-4 while developing roles for a talented cast of freshmen pitchers including Sakamoto (Highland), Jaylen Rodriguez (Redwood), Zach Mccorvey (El Diamante), Reed Passmore (Monache) and Izaiah Davis (Tulare Western) behind returning ace Hernandez (Porterville).
"We were not built for that," Allen said of playing six games in eight days. "But once conference started, we got into a routine. We got our pitching figured out and our offense has been pretty consistent."
COS, which is hitting .286 on the season, also has gotten key contributions from Allen (.292, 23 runs), Rojas (.296, 22 RBIs), Thompson (.265, HR, 22 RBIs), Donte Valdez (.298, HR, nine RBIs), Tucker (.408, 13 RBIs), Isaac Gonzalez (.267, 24 RBIs) and Salazar (.255, 12 RBIs).
"Obviously (Chris Gonzalez) is a big cog. He can be productive off anyone," Allen said. "But one of the things that's been really good about this team is it has been a different guy stepping up every game."
After overcoming early season shoulder stiffness, Hernandez has settled in as the Giants ace pitcher, going 4-0 with a 1.51 earned-run average. Sakamoto (5-4, 3.17), Rodriguez (0-2, 5.75), Mccorvey (3-0, 0.86), Passmore (1-0, 2.35) and Davis (1-0, six saves, 2.79) log the majority of innings for a pitching staff with a collective 3.98 ERA, including a 2.58 mark in CVC play.
After this week's series against Porterville, COS closes the regular season playing seven of its final nine games at home.
The Giants will sandwich a home nonconference series against Saddleback (April 16-18) around CVC series against Reedley on April 9th (home), 11th (away) and 13th (home) and Taft on April 23rd (home), 25th (away) and 26th (home).
COS is aiming for its eighth berth in the Northern California Regional playoffs over the past nine seasons.
"We've answered every challenge we've had so far," Allen said. "We can be a dangerous team because we don't rely on one or two guys. I'm not looking too far into the future, but we like where we're at. Other people are chasing us. When you control your own destiny, that's a nice place to be."