It’s understandable that the Atascadero High baseball team entered this season with high hopes.
Eight seniors returned from last year’s PAC 7 runner-up that won 14 of its final 17 games, including infielder Bryce Cherry, The Tribune’s reigning San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year and an Under Armour preseason All-American.
The Greyhounds delivered on that promise Wednesday afternoon, posting 10 runs in the bottom of the fifth inning of an 11-2 nonleague win over Mission Prep to claim their own Atascadero Easter Tournament title.
Atascadero (9-5), which opened PAC 7 play 4-2, has won seven of eight overall.
“I think it’s huge for our confidence,” Cherry said. “Going back into the PAC 7, hopefully we’ll start rolling again. It’s kind of how we did it last year. It’s kind of along the same lines — how we started slow — and we’re going to finish strong. I think we’ve got a good chance (to compete for the league championship).”
A year ago, Atascadero’s late-season surge led to an 11-7 PAC 7 finish and a wild-card win in the CIF-Southern Section Division II playoffs.
“I kind of look at this as a second preseason,” Greyhounds coach Dan Butz said. “It’s a chance to get some guys back up on the mound and back in the game who maybe for a couple of weeks, just because of the way games went, didn’t have a chance to.”
Starting pitcher Jake Cuen picked up the complete-game win Wednesday, striking out three, walking five and scattering four hits.
“I think (Cuen) needed that,” Butz said. “We needed to kind of stretch him out a little bit.“Certainly, heading into next week, it’s extremely, extremely important that (the Greyhounds’ starting pitchers) are getting those (lengthy) outings.”
Cherry, a Point Loma Nazarene University signee, earned tournament MVP honors, while Cuen, Joey Dodds and Kenny Block joined him on the all-tournament team.
With starter Art Lane dealing strong Wednesday, the Royals bided their time, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning when Ray Hurwitz drove in Kevin Laird. They held on to that lead for one more frame until Atascadero erupted in the bottom of the fifth, as Tanner Thompson tied the score with a one-out single up the middle that brought in pinch-runner Luke Allen.
“We needed to make something happen,” Butz said, “and the kids just needed somebody to kind of goad them into, ‘Let’s get started.’ ”
Soon after, Mitchell Angeloni singled to load the bases for Cherry, who belted a double to score Dodds and Thompson for a 3-1 advantage.
Then Spencer Ruggles smacked a two-run single that made it 5-1 before he came home on a fielding error for a 6-1 lead, at which point Stephen Fleming was sent in to relieve Lane.
Ensuing two-run singles by Dodds and Angeloni stretched the margin to 10-1 before the Royals were able to put an end to the onslaught on a Cherry flyout.
Pinch-hitter Evan Hicks scored Ruggles with another single in the bottom of the sixth before Laird completed the scoring by bringing home Garrett Bych on a single in the top of the seventh.
Lane yielded eight hits and six runs through 42⁄3 innings, striking out one and walking two, before Fleming gave up four hits and the final five runs over the last 21⁄3 innings, with two strikeouts and a walk.
Ruggles finished a team-best 3 for 4 with a pair of RBI for Atascadero, while Angeloni, Dodds and Block all added two hits apiece, with the first two contributing two RBI each.
Laird, also an all-tournament selection, led Mission Prep (5-7) at the plate with a 2-for-4, one-RBI showing. Hurwitz joined him on the all-tournament team.
“We’re a little disappointed, because we were playing them really tough,” Mission Prep coach Gerry Detz said, “and then they hit the ball hard for one inning, but that’s baseball.”
Still, however, carrying a lead into the fifth over a PAC 7 contender was encouraging, Detz said.
“We’re very happy — we couldn’t ask for more,” Detz said. “We can probably play with anybody, as long as we make the plays and we pitch well.
“We’ve just given up a lot of big innings, though, so we’ve got to stop that.”