By Ray Hamill — The schedule makers could not have planned it any better than this.
The top two teams playing for the Big 5 title on the final day of the regular season — in two different sports.
In softball, McKinleyville has already clinched at least a share of the league crown, but will look to take it outright with a win in a doubleheader at Eureka on Saturday, while the Loggers will need a sweep to share the championship.
And across the road at Bud Cloney Field, both schools’ baseball teams will go head-to-head to decide the league crown, with McKinleville needing one win from the two games to take the title, and the Loggers needing a sweep to claim it outright for themselves.
For local high school sports, it doesn’t get any better than this.
It certainly doesn’t get much closer.
The question now, however, is whether the Panthers can carry the momentum from Wednesday’s dramatic series-opening win into Saturday’s big showdown?
And whether they can close the deal now they are so close?
The excitement around the team is palpable.
And it should be.
The Panthers have not won a league crown in more than a decade and have not won one outright in more than two decades.
And there’s no guarantee those streaks won’t continue.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” was the message head coach Scott St. John told his players after Wednesday’s walk-off win.
It certainly won’t be easy de-throning a Loggers team that is looking for a third straight title and a program that has claimed seven of the 11 league titles since Mack last shared it back in 2007.
The Loggers are dangerous just about everywhere.
They have a veteran coach, a deep lineup, some of the best defensive players in the league, and two starting pitchers who won’t get rattled on Saturday.
But the Panthers need just one win, and for them to be denied they would have to suffer twice as many losses as they’ve suffered all season in just one afternoon.
The 18-1 Mack boys are truly enjoying a season for the ages, and it’s been a month to the day since they last lost a game.
For comparison sake, no Big 5 team has finished with fewer than five losses in a single season in the past 14 years, a mark the Panthers are likely to beat in 2019.
Like the Loggers, they are playing well in all facets of the game and this is a group of players that have learned from the hard knocks they’ve taken along the way, and a group that is playing with a determination.
In their four toughest league games so far — against Arcata and Eureka — they are 3-1, winning twice in extra innings, and twice on a walk-off.
This appears to be a team that knows how to win close games, and one that doesn’t give up easily.
The same, of course, can be said for the Loggers, who are 12-5 and have won nine of their last 11 games, although they are riding a two-game losing skid with back-to-back losses to Arcata and McKinleyville.
Head coach Eric Giacone will likely go with Brady Munson and Kalebh Hill on the mound, and if the Eureka boys can win the opener, it will make for a very interesting nightcap and challenge the McKinleyville players like they’ve never been challenged in their young sporting lives.
Mack will counter with standout sophomore pitcher Corbin Eichin in game one and “we’ll see what happens” for game two, according to head coach Scott St. John.
Eichin is one of the best young pitchers in an H-DNL loaded with them, and he is 2-0 this season in five starts with an ERA of 2.10.
Munson also has been pitching well lately and is coming off back-to-back strong outings, including last weekend’s no-hitter against Arcata.
Either way, it should be an exciting day at Eureka High, and one for local fans to relish.
Interestingly, the closest the Panthers have come to winning the Big 5 in recent years was back in 2013, when Eureka edged them out by a single game.
Coincidently, that was also the last time one school won both the Big 5 baseball and softball titles in the same year.
One way or the other, history will repeat itself on Saturday.
The question is which way.