The celebration began early Wednesday for the La Quinta High School baseball team, which began whooping it up in the dugout during the third inning of its Garden Grove League game against Bolsa Grande on the Matadors' field.
The Aztecs had just scored seven runs in the inning and were well on their way to a 15-1 victory and the Garden Grove League championship.
La Quinta (11-1 in league, 18-2 overall) wrapped up its third league title in the past four years, and it marked Coach Dave Demarest's fourth league championship in his 12 years at the school. For the eighth straight season, the Aztecs will be going to the Southern Section playoffs.
When right fielder John Brewer, who was hitting .455 at the time, went out of the lineup with a fractured ankle after La Quinta's league opener, and when cleanup hitter Denny Spradlin, who had 16 RBIs in 13 games, fractured his hand during Easter vacation, few figured the Aztecs would have enough punch to win the league.
But La Quinta held together behind the play of third baseman Jim Ingram, shortstop Troy Paulsen and second baseman Trung Nguyen, an infield Demarest describes as one of the best in Orange County.
"I just tell my pitchers to throw strikes and let the other kids field them," he said.
That strategy worked perfectly on Wednesday. La Quinta right-hander Steve Hunt (9-1) pitched a six-hitter with four strikeouts and walked just one. The infield recorded nine ground-ball outs and a double play.
There was no shortage of power in the Aztecs' offense. La Quinta had 15 hits, including 11 off Bolsa Grande starter and loser Robbie Walker, who lasted three innings. The Aztecs scored four runs in the second inning, seven in the third, three in the fifth and one in the seventh.
Paulsen led La Quinta with three hits, including a three-run home run in the second, and five RBIs. His homer, a shot to left-center field, snapped a 1-1 tie and put La Quinta in front for good. He added a two-run single in the third inning to prolong a seven-run rally that began after two were out.
Paulsen, a junior and the Aztecs' leadoff hitter, is batting .441 with 19 RBIs and has scored 27 runs. Ingram added four hits, while Hunt, Floyd Leon and Joey Dunn each had two hits.
"Ever since we beat Sunny Hills, El Dorado and Laguna Hills at the beginning of the season, the kids believed they could win," Demarest said. "Those are three good teams right there. When you've been around the game long enough, you know how much difference it makes whey your team thinks it can win."
Demarest wasn't so sure his players wanted to win on Monday. He thought that with a three-game lead over Bolsa Grande, they were getting complacent and just going through the motions during practice. Demarest kicked them off the field.
The Matadors took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on Kevin Stiles' suicide squeeze, but Demarest felt that run only served to wake his players up.
The Aztecs came back with a barrage of hits, and it now appears that the offense will be bolstered by the return of both Brewer and Spradlin, who are expected to be back for the playoffs. Brewer has made pinch-hit appearances during the past two games, while Spradlin has missed seven games.
Bolsa Grande, the defending league champion, dropped to 7-5 in league and 9-12 overall. Paul Chavez was the only Matador to get two hits off Hunt.
In other Garden Grove League action:
Los Amigos 16, Santiago 2--Los Amigos pounded Santiago pitching for 16 hits en route to an easy win over the host Cavaliers. The win moved Los Amigos (5-7 in league and 9-11 overall) into a fourth-place tie with Santiago (5-7, 8-11). Scott Soukup led the Lobos by going 4 for 5 with a double, triple and and four RBIs and teammates Matt Phelps, Mike Clodfelter and Jeff Houck each added three hits. Joe Jagolowski pitched a complete game and struck out eight to get the win.
Garden Grove 2, Rancho Alamitos 0--The Argonauts scored unearned runs in the third and fifth to win at Rancho Alamitos. Garden Grove moves into a second place tie with Bolsa Grande with a record of 7-5. Rancho Alamitos is 1-11.