Ask three players from the talent-rich 2014 Bronco baseball team what they recall about that freakish ricochet in center field that sent the team home as 11-10 losers in the semifinal round of the CIF Division 7 playoffs, and you’ll hear three distinctly different recollections.
Riverside Prep’s scandalously inept playing field — basically a giant desert sandbox more appropriate for lizards and rattlesnakes than student-athletes — mirrored a rock-strewn moonscape. The score was 10-10 late in the game on that sweltering June 3 afternoon when a routine fly ball landed on a rock in front of sure-handed center fielder Tommy Moreno.
It took a dreadfully high bounce over Moreno’s head. What turned out to be the winning run scored, and Coast Union was bounced out of the chance to play in the championship game. It was the first time the Broncos had battled their way into the semifinals in many years.
The gifted 2014 Broncos had defeated New Roads, St. Monica Academy and Dunn School to set up their five-hour ride to San Bernardino County to play the Silver Knights in the brutal heat at a town misnamed Oro Grande (translation: “big gold”). Given the ridiculously unsuitable playing field, the scene turned out to be more like fool’s gold for the Broncos.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Three key players from that confident, classy 2014 team — who show the passion it takes to participate in sports programs — were contacted for this story: Gehrig Kniffen (who will be playing basketball at College of Siskiyous in the fall); Moreno (his first year as assistant football coach, Coast Union); and Jake McAvoy (now playing baseball for the Glenwood Geckos in the Mountain West Summer Collegiate Baseball League, will play fall baseball at College of Siskiyous).
Moreno was easily the slickest fielding center fielder in recent Bronco history. Not particularly quick afoot, he had an uncanny ability to instantly assess the trajectory of a long fly ball and hustle to the precise spot to make the catch.
He hit a respectable .306, knocked in 15 runs, blasted three triples and committed just a pair of errors in the 2014 season. In football his senior year, Moreno grabbed 18 passes for 359 yards and scored six touchdowns. He returned kickoffs for 138 yards and returned punts for 109 yards.
Interviewed on the phone Thursday, June 30, Moreno said being able to coach the receiver position — to pass on what he learned from coach Charlie Casale — is “really a good feeling.” When the subject turned to the semifinal baseball game in Oro Grande, Moreno said, “It’s still a nightmare to me. What really sucks was that I couldn’t do anything about it.
It was terrible luck — a complete nightmare.
“It was like the ball hit on a trampoline. It bounced like 20 feet in the air. I jumped up, although that jump wouldn’t have done anything. There was nothing I could have done but get the ball and throw it in. At that point, the run scored. It was terrible luck — a complete nightmare.”
Moreno recalls hearing the groundskeeper telling coach Brian Machado that the hot desert wind tends to disturb the grass that had been planted a few times. Moreno remembers the maintenance person saying “it was a waste of money” to try and plant new grass on the field.
“I loved all the guys on that team,” Moreno said. “We became like brothers. But that ride home (after the 11-10 loss) — it had to be the worst ride home of my career. It was the end of a really great run.”
Kniffen, a junior in 2014, hit .538 with 35 hits and 27 RBI in 65 official at-bats. Amazingly, the stats on MaxPreps indicate he only struck out once that season, and he was third on the team with a .579 on-base percentage. He stole eight bases in nine attempts and played errorless ball in left field.
Kniffen — who also excelled on the Coast Union basketball and football teams — is set to play basketball for the College of Siskiyous; he had a tryout at Siskiyous and was assured a chance to compete this fall.
Before discussing the semifinal game against the Silver Knights in a phone interview (in that game, he had a couple of hits, scored two runs and drove in a run), Kniffen said he believed he (left field), Moreno (center), and Sergio Mendoza (right) made up the best outfield in recent Coast Union history.
“We had the closest dynamic I have ever had on a team,” Kniffen said. “We hung out together. We were good friends. I had the most fun I’ve ever had on any team I played on.”
Thinking back on the semifinal game, Kniffen was more philosophical than Moreno.
We hung out together; we were good friends. I had the most fun I’ve ever had on any team I played on.
“Yes, we were disadvantaged by the field, but we shouldn’t think of the one ball that bounced over Tommy’s head as deciding the whole game,” Kniffen said. “We had a lot of chances to cut off runs. I could have thrown out a runner at home, and I was thrown out trying to advance on a ball I couldn’t advance on. There were a lot of things — it’s never one play.
“I’ll look back years later, and I’ll never be happy we didn’t win the championship. But it was a really great season and a really great team, and looking back, we should be thankful we got that opportunity to do what we did.”
Jake McAvoy, who was a junior in 2014-15 and in his second year of varsity baseball after his family moved to Cambria from Colorado, had an excellent season in 2014. He was 7-1 with a 2.80 ERA and used his curveball and change-up to strike out 35 batters in 45 innings.
He was the No. 3 hurler after the dominating MVP Grant Magnuson and the dependable Quinten Raethke, but he tossed five complete games and held his own at the plate, knocking in 18 runs in 24 games. He also played some tenacious defense for the Bronco football team that year, leading the squad with 30 solo tackles.
McAvoy, reached by phone in Colorado on Saturday, July 2, said the semifinal loss was a “learning experience.” Bad bounces happen all the time to every team, said McAvoy, who played third base that day.
“We had a lot of talent and everything was looking good for us going into the playoffs.”
He mentioned the terrific pitching from Magnuson and Raethke; Emmany Godinez, the “stellar shortstop” (who stole 29 bases in 32 attempts); and Tommy Howard, “an unbelievable first baseman.”
McAvoy recalls that the team was at a disadvantage in that semifinal game because Magnuson — who had a blazing fast ball, struck out 57 hitters in 52 innings and had a miserly 1.87 ERA — pulled a leg muscle in the Dunn game. Not taking anything away from Raethke, who pitched that day, but Magnuson was the team’s bread and butter, their ace — and his loss was huge.
Adding insult to injury, one of the team’s vans broke down on the way home. McAvoy and other players took that long ride back in Lane Sutherland’s parents’ car (Sutherland hit .421 on the season and had four hits in the semifinal game).
The ride home was “a little quiet,” McAvoy remembers.
“It kind of hit everyone, like, ‘Whoa, that’s it — that’s our season.’ But we conversed a little bit here and there.”
Still learning and improving his game by competing in the Colorado summer league, at the time of the interview McAvoy had two wins and one save in five appearances. He doesn’t have a dominating fastball so he “just sinks it in there.”
But, he added, “My velocity has picked up since high school, so that’s huge for me.”
What will be huge for Coast Union’s baseball future is to come up with players who display the talent, skill — and camaraderie — of that remarkable 2014 Bronco team.