June 2, 2012
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Pitcher Justin Garza is about to be swarmed by his teammates after pitching the Bearcats to a 5-1 victory at Dodger Stadium for the school's first baseball championship since 1951.

Pitcher Justin Garza is about to be swarmed by his teammates after pitching the Bearcats to a 5-1 victory at Dodger Stadium for the school's first baseball championship since 1951. All photos by Susana Munson.

It was a promotion, graduation, coronation and jubilee all rolled into one. The Bonita Bearcats (32-2) invited everyone to their big party at Dodger Stadium and they didn’t disappoint. Knott’s knights played like they actually belonged there, diving for balls at third (Thomas Castro), spearing balls out of the air in the outfield (Tanner Diebold, Nolan Henley and Joe Willard), ranging deep in the hole at second and short (Woody Reyes and Justin Row), throwing runners out from their knees (Justin Garza and battery mate Jake Blunt), and tagging out runners at first (Anthony Gonzalez).

Nothing could rattle these error-free guys, not the huge throng (the only person from La Verne not at the ballpark, it seemed, was the busy guy working the La Verne Starbucks drive-thru window), not the ghosts of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella or Don Drysdale, not the horde of media, not the manicured lawn, not the picture-perfect pinstripe foul lines, not the booming PA system or the huge outfield scoreboard.

Dr. Gary Rapkin, Bonita Unified School Superintendent, practically declared the day a national holiday by making the Friday a minimum day, giving the Bonita faithful ample time to make it to Chavez Ravine in downtown Los Angeles. Talk about your pressure to perform when half you’re town is watching.

cif8After the final pitch was thrown and the final score of 5-1 was posted, giving Bonita its first CIF baseball championship since 1951, coach John Knott tried to put the game in perspective. The Tribune’s prep editor, Fred Robledo, asked him what the victory meant.

“I’m just so proud of these kids,” Knott said, who was barely audible over the roaring, deafening cheers of the Bonita fans behind the Dodgers’ third base dugout after Garza struck out the last batter of the game. “All the training and the sweat and the hard work and the failures at times, and just learning from them. Words really can’t express how you feel.

“It’s great to have a crowd like this, supporting us. It’s definitely not a one-person effort. It’s a total community and group effort, and we’re just really proud to be part of this right now.”

Even though the sun was beating down on the ball yard, Bonita didn’t make its fans sweat very long. In the bottom of the first, lead-off hitter Row got aboard on an error, moved up 90 feet on a passed ball and scored on a sharp single to center by Castro, who was perfect at the bat and the field all day.

In the top of the second, Alhambra, who last played in a CIF baseball championship in 1927, responded with a two-out RBI single by pitcher Marco Biones to score Jeremy Duran and tie the score, 1-1.

cif5In the bottom of the second, Blunt laced a one out double down the left field line but was later cut down at third when the catcher successfully blocked a ball in the dirt and recovered to throw out the sliding Blunt.

In the top of the third, Garza made short work of Alhambra’s top of the lineup.

Bonita rode that momentum to bat around in the bottom of the third. Hitting in the eight hole, Diebold singled to left to lead off, then Reyes bunted him to second. Row followed with a single to put runners on first and third. Then Row stole second, bringing up Garza with runners at second and third.

Garza dropped down a suicide squeeze as Diebold broke for home. Briones leaped off the mound, bobbled the ball briefly, then threw low to first, the ball arriving about the same time Garza’s foot was striking the bag. Garza seemed to kick the ball lose out of Juan Morales’ glove, scoring not only Diebold, but also Row.

“Garza’s our best hit and run guy,” Knott explained after the game, “so we called the squeeze right there. He got it down. He hustled down the line, forced them to hurry, and then we ended up scoring two runs on the play.

Castro singled and then Heslop singled through the right side of the infield to score Garza, making it 4-1.

With Castro now at second and Heslop at first, Henley grounded into the hole between short and third. The only play the shortstop had was a force at third, but when he threw wildly, Castro scored the team’s fourth run of the inning, putting up Bonita, 5-1.

cif9In the top of the fourth, it looked as if Garza was feeling a bit too charitable walking Alhambra’s clean-up hitter Juan Morales to start the inning. But Garza got the next batter to ground out, and then Diebold hauled down a drive to left center by Jesus Lopez, probably the hardest hit ball of the afternoon. Garza responded by striking out the next batter to end the inning.

Sensing the finish line, Garza set down the final nine batters he faced over the final three innings. With one out in the fifth, he got some more outstanding defensive help, when third baseman Castro dove and knocked down a hard-hit ground ball headed to left field, then bounced to his feet to nail Brandon Morales at first.

Alhambra, which committed four errors, seemed to settle down in the later innings, but it was a case of too little too late against a Bonita team that executed perfectly.

“Alhambra got tougher,” Knott said. “That’s a tribute to them.”

As big as the Dodger Stadium venue was, Bonita approached it like another day at the ballpark, as if it was playing stickball in the backyard.

Players line up for the singing of the National Anthem.

Players line up for the singing of the National Anthem.

“I think pitching and defense have been the strength of our team,” Knott said. “I can’t say enough about those guys — Thomas Castro, Justin Row, Woody Reyes — really just everyone playing their butts off, making the routine play, but also the nice play, and that only makes our pitcher that much more confident.”

In his seventh year at the helm, taking various teams to the finals, semi-finals and quarter finals, Knott finally got to experience what it’s like to be the last team standing.

“Stuff like this doesn’t happen all the time,” Knott said. “We’ve had some good runs the last few years, but to actually get it done, it’s not only great for myself, the coaches and the guys playing, but there have been numerous guys who have played in past years text-messaging me, stopping by at the field, so this isn’t just for us, it’s for them, too. And the school and the community. It’s great to get a following like this. It makes it feel really special.”

After the final out and dog pile of players, reporters were chasing Garza down the way Alhambra batters were chasing his fastball and curveball. Over two years, Garza surrendered a total of 15 runs, while going 25-1.

“It’s just a great feeling,” he said. “You could tell from the start of the year that we were going to bond. We’re not too big of a team, but we’re scrappy. We’re brothers, we all work together. It was just our year. We knew it was going to happen. We had a good vibe and we finally did it.”

Garza didn’t let the history of Dodger Stadium unnerve him. Indeed, he seemed to thrive in a sea of Dodger Blue and a lot of Bonita Green.

“As a high school kid, it’s exactly where you want to be,” Garza said, calmly taking one interview request after another, much like the way he confidently addressed the Alhambra hitters all afternoon. “You want to pitch on a major league mound, and you want to win there.”

Garza said he felt as good as he had all season, crediting the crowd for some of his success.

“It’s kind of hard not to feel strong in this atmosphere,” he said. “I felt good.”

And so did the hundreds of Bonita fans that came out to support him and the team.

What a season!


More photos and video to follow later today. Stay tuned to LaVerneOnline …


  1. Let hope the City of La Verne makes our CIF Champs our 4th of July marshall.

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