Warrior baseball reaches Lions Tournament championship game

Fallbrook High School’s baseball team won its pool in the 63rd annual Lions Invitational Baseball Tournament to advance to the semifinals and then shut out Canyon Crest in the semifinal contest to advance to the AAAA Division championship game.

“It was a big deal,” said Fallbrook coach Mark DiBenedetti.

The Lions Tournament, which began in 1951 with 16 teams and was created so San Diego teams did not have to travel outside of the county for an Easter Break tournament, first included out-of-town teams in 1993 and is now the largest high school baseball tournament in the nation. The AAAA Division was one of eight divisions in this year’s tournament.

The Warriors won three of their five games in the March 25-28 tournament; their comeback win March 26 over San Pedro gave Fallbrook the head-to-head advantage when both teams finished pool play with 2-1 records.

Fallbrook opened pool play March 25 with a 6-4 loss to Mission Bay on the Buccaneers’ diamond. The Warriors scored all four of their runs in the seventh inning.

The Warriors hosted San Pedro the next day, although the Pirates batted as the home team. San Pedro scored both of its runs in the third inning.

Fallbrook put its first positive number on the scoreboard in the top of the fourth inning. Christian Soto doubled, Andy White pinch-ran for Soto, and Connor Stotz singled to drive in White.

In the top of the fifth inning Birch Anson walked and advanced to second on Esteban Gomez’s sacrifice bunt. Anson was out at third on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Brandon Sandoval, although Matt Jepsen then hit a two-run homer to give the Warriors a 3-2 lead.

Jepsen would also star on defense against the Pirates. In the bottom of the fifth inning his catch in right field with a runner on third base and two outs ended the inning and saved at least one run. Jepsen would end the game on the mound and received a save to preserve Alex Strizak’s first varsity win as a pitcher.

Fallbrook’s final run of the 4-2 game against San Pedro was scored in the top of the seventh. Sandoval singled and stole both second and third. James Thomas then hit a sacrifice fly to right field to score Sandoval.

Fallbrook’s final pool play contest in the Lions Tournament was against the Lions of Sacramento’s McClatchy High School. The March 27 game was played at Poway High School, and Fallbrook batted as the home team. McClatchy scored five runs in the top of the first inning. Fallbrook scored twice in the bottom of the first. The Lions took a 6-2 lead in the second inning, but Fallbrook scored seven times in the third and four times in the fourth to take a 13-6 lead. Four McClatchy runs in the sixth inning finalized the 13-10 score.

San Pedro’s win over Mission Bay that day gave the Pirates a 2-1 pool record and the Buccaneers a 1-2 mark as McClatchy had also defeated Mission Bay while San Pedro was victorious over McClatchy. “It was a solid division,” DiBenedetti said. “It was competitive.”

The 2-1 pool records posted by both Fallbrook and San Pedro led the quartet of teams. Because Fallbrook defeated San Pedro, the Warriors advanced out of pool play and into the division semifinals.

“We thought we had a chance to win it,” DiBenedetti said.

The semifinals and finals were both played March 28 at Eastlake High School. Fallbrook’s semifinal match against Canyon Crest began at 9:30 a.m. In the first inning doubles by Sandoval and Jepsen gave the Warriors a 1-0 lead. Jepsen followed his third-inning single by stealing second and third; he then scored on Thomas’ single. Jepsen would add a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning after Anson singled and advanced to third on the pitcher’s throwing error related to Sandoval’s infield grounder. In the seventh inning Nick DeVera doubled, advanced to third on Stotz’s single, and scored on Cedric Brown’s single.

The Ravens loaded the bases in the top of the seventh inning, and Jepsen replaced Cy Vojak on the mound with two outs. Jepsen earned the save after a fly ball to right field ended the game with the Warriors on the favorable end of the 4-0 score. Vojak’s 6 2/3 innings pitched included five hits, three walks, and four strikeouts.

The AAAA Division championship game between Fallbrook and St. Paul High School of Santa Fe Springs began at 3:30 p.m. and ended as a 5-0 victory for the Swordsmen.

“It wasn’t what we wanted; we wanted to be the champions, of course,” DiBenedetti said. “At least we got to the championship game.”

Fallbrook had a 6-7 season record following the Lions Tournament.

St. Paul had won the Bill Burrows AA Division championship in 2005, when the Lions Tournament had six divisions. Fallbrook last won a Lions Tournament championship in 1998, when the AAAA Division was one of five divisions.

“Maybe next time we can win it,” DiBenedetti said.

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