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Upstart Tustin Defeats Irvine : Prep baseball: Tillers' 8-5 victory puts them in Division III final against La Quinta.


SANTA ANA — It was supposed to be an off-year. Tustin was going nowhere this season.

The Tillers were talented but inexperienced. Good but not great. Dangerous but erratic.

Yet the Tillers, too young to know they shouldn't be here, will play La Quinta for the Southern Section Division III baseball championship Saturday at Anaheim Stadium. Tustin earned a spot by beating Irvine, 8-5, Tuesday at Rancho Santiago.

Nearly everyone had picked Irvine to win the title. The Vaqueros had eight returning starters from a team that reached the Division II championship a year ago. They were ready to take the next step this season.

Tustin? The Tillers had one starter back. The pitcher they relied on had never worked an inning in a varsity game. They were even playing for a new coach.

Their prospects?

"I figured this team could miss the playoffs or win the championship," Coach Tim O'Donoghue said.

O'Donoghue is in the title game, but it almost went the other way.

Tustin (21-9-1) had reached at least the semifinals the last three seasons and played in the title game in 1990. This season, the Tillers needed to win their final two regular-season games just to finish third in the Sea View League and reach the playoffs.

They have won five consecutive games since, including a 5-4 victory over top-seeded and previously undefeated Bishop Amat in the quarterfinals.

"Our kids wanted Amat," O'Donoghue said. "They have been great at accepting any challenges."

Tuesday's game was another doozy. After all, Irvine, the Sea View League co-champion, had scored 34 runs in three playoff games.

It was up to Ronnie Hall to slow that offense. Hall had done it once before this season, shutting out the Vaqueros, 6-0, in the league opener.

This time they got to him for five runs, three in the third and two in the sixth. Weaved around those outbursts was a magnificent performance.

Hall (12-2), who pitched on the junior varsity last season, struck out 11 and walked one. He struck out four of the first five batters and closed the game by striking out the side.

"Irvine's a scary team," said third baseman Derek Baker, the team's only returning starter. "They can jump on you in a hurry. Ronnie stood up and did the job."

It was a job made easier when Tustin scored four runs in the top of the first without a hit. Irvine committed three errors in the inning, two by pitcher Ryan O'Toole. The Vaqueros made five errors in all.

O'Toole (6-1) retired only one, a sacrifice fly by Hall. He was replaced by Eric Sobek after six batters. Five Tillers reached base on two walks, two errors and a hit batter.

"That's the type of team we've been," said Tustin outfielder Tim Wilson, a three-year letterman. "We have only a couple guys who can hit it out of the park, so we need to create runs. We put pressure on the other teams."

Irvine (23-8) applied its own form of pressure. The Vaqueros had four consecutive hits in the third and three consecutive hits in the sixth. They didn't just hit the ball, they banged it. Ryan Jones had a home run and Scott Seal and Chris Greinke had doubles.

Tustin, on the other hand, had six singles. But the Tillers received eight walks and stole five bases. Two of their runs scored on sacrifice flies, another on a walk and three on errors.

As a result, the Tillers were able to stay a step ahead of Irvine all day.

"I was three outs away from the championship game two years ago and six outs away last year," Wilson said. "This year, we made it. When the season started, I had no idea we could get this far."

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