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The countdown to 2018 is underway.

As the end of the year nears, it’s time to turn the spotlight on the Righetti Warriors baseball team — a team that made it all the way to the championship game of the 2017 CIF Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.

As we count down to the No. 1 sports story of 2017, Righetti’s chase for the championship comes in at No. 7 in Lee Central Coast Newspapers’ annual list of top sports stories of the year.

Along the way, the Warriors won a share of the PAC 8 League championship, earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and defeated four teams to earn the right to play for the Division 3 title.

Although Righetti, the division’s No. 2 seed, fell to third-seeded Walnut 13-2 in the championship game, it was still a memorable season for the boys in purple and gold.

“It was a huge accomplishment. It’s not easy to make it to a CIF championship game,” said Righetti coach Brian Tomooka during a recent interview. “There were a lot of great teams in the Division 3 playoffs. We got hot at the right time and things worked out for us.”

The Warriors brought a potent team to the playoff party.

The team was loaded with 11 seniors who returned from the 2016 squad that made it to that season’s CIF-SS quarterfinals.

“Making the run to the 2016 quarterfinals really inspired us to be even better in 2017,” said Tomooka. “They were a great group. Their leadership was excellent, without it we wouldn’t have made it to the 2017 championship game. I can’t say enough about how hard they worked and competed all year.”

Righetti’s roster was also loaded with talent.

A trio of senior pitchers — Matt Sauer, Mitchell Bagby and Alex Castellanos — led the team to a 28-7 record and an 18-3 record in the PAC 8 League, sharing the league title with Paso Robles.

“What a great job they did,” said Tomooka. “Obviously they were a key to our success. Having those guys on the mound gave our guys a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs.”

Sauer, the Lee Central Coast Newspapers All-Area MVP who was later drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round of baseball’s amateur draft, anchored the team with a 9-1 record and a 0.98 earned run average. In 14 starts, Sauer gave up just 11 earned runs, giving up 42 hits while striking out 142.

Bagby started 12 games, posting an 8-3 mark, while yielding 66 hits and striking out 74.

Castellanos went 11-0 as both a starter and reliever. He started eight games and saved one.

Each of the three had four complete games.

The Warriors offense was equally impressive.

When not pitching, Sauer could usually be found playing second base. He hit .427 on the season.

Bagby doubled as the team’s first baseman and was a .365 hitter and Castellanos, when not warming up in the bullpen, spent time patrolling the outfield.

Outfielder Joseph Boivin batted .480 on the year, shortstop Zach Rudd hit .352, catcher Zach Anderson was a .352 hitter and his backup, Josh Robinson, hit .400. Seth Lopez also hit .400 in a backup role in the outfield.

Seniors Bryce Gerritsen, Tanner Sampson and Hunter Bendele also provided significant contributions to the Warriors’ success.

The junior class contributed with center fielder Jaden LyBurtus hitting .377, utilityman Weston Hammell hitting .344 and Josh Glazewski a key man coming out of the bullpen.

The run to the playoffs began with a key three-game PAC 8 League series against Paso Robles.

“They had a one-game lead on us going into the series and we lost the opener of that series by one run, on a walk-off hit against Sauer,” said Tomooka. “Then we won the next game with Bagby on the mound. We were down by five runs in the third game and came back to win. That tied us for the league lead and eventually gave us the No. 1 seed out of the PAC 8 heading to the playoffs.”

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Paso Robles also made a deep run through the Division 3 playoffs.

“They lost to Walnut in the semifinals,” said Tomooka. “If they had won that game, we would have had an all PAC 8 League final. How great would that have been? But it shows that Paso was as good as any team in the playoffs and the PAC 8 League is as strong as any of them.”

Righetti edged Culver City 2-1 in its playoff opener and then followed that with a 3-2 victory over Covina Charter Oak.

A 7-4 win over Rolling Hills Estates Peninsula in the quarterfinals was Righetti’s biggest margin of victory.

The Warriors 1-0 victory over Paraclete in the semifinals set up the final showdown with Walnut.

“Three of those games were one-run wins. Any one of those games could have gone the other way,” said Tomooka.

Walnut got off to an early lead in the championship game, scoring a run in the first, three more in the second and another in the fourth before blowing the game open with a six-run sixth.

The Warriors were held to four hits.

"Just came out flat; didn't score runs. Thought he was a hittable pitcher, we didn't get our jobs done on the defensive end. That's the outcome,” Sauer said just after the game. "Oh man, this whole year was a lot of fun. It sucks the way the game ended, but these are my brothers and I love them all to death."

“It was a great year. They’re a great group of guys,” said Tomooka. “I’m proud of all of them and the way they played the entire season.” 

Next: No. 6. The Countdown to the Championship ends with another title run.