By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers are champions of the Big 5 and a lot more besides.
On Saturday they clinched the league title with a 5-1 win in the opening game of a doubleheader at Eureka High.
It’s the school’s first outright league championship in baseball since 1996, but this is a team that is setting standards that will be hard to match anywhere in the Big 5, perhaps for years to come.
The Panthers dropped the second game by a score of 4-1, giving many of their fringe players some deserved playing time after the emotional high of securing the league championship in the opener.
With the split, the Panthers are now 19-2 overall, and on track to post the best season record of any Big 5 team over the past 15 years, which is as far back as MaxPreps records go.
“These guys just don’t give up,” McKinleyville head coach Scott St. John said of his players. “All season they haven’t felt they were overmatched by anybody. And they rose to the occasion today.”
The league title, coupled with the Panthers’ softball championship, gives McKinleyville High School a Big 5 double, the first time a school has won both league titles in the same year since Eureka did it in 2013.
And it’s an achievement the head coach feels his players earned.
“You know, I’m just happy for my guys first and foremost,” he said. “All the hard work they put in. It’s my second year with the team and since I got here these guys really bought in to what we’re trying to do and have done everything we asked of them.
“But I’m also happy for our school. It was a tough time this week for our school. And our community. We get great support up here in McKinleyville from the community. They really follow the Panthers.”
In the opener, the Panthers had to start without star shortstop Cameron Saso, who was delayed at the SATs, but they settled down and took control of the game with runs in each of the third, fourth and fifth innings to open up a 5-0 advantage.
There was no way back for the Loggers after that, not with sophomore pitcher Corbin Eichin in commanding form on the mound, and the ever-reliable Lance Lally coming in to close out and post yet another save.
“Corbin came up big for us in that first game,” St. John said. “For a sophomore to step up like that, he’s just been outstanding.”
Eichin helped his own cause with a pair of hits on offense, while Dustin Ireland was 1-for-3 with a double and three RBIs.
Lally added three hits, while Eureka’s Hayden Bode had two hits and Drew Nylander and Keenan Morris a double each.
Eichin gave up just three hits and two walks in six innings, while Lally allowed one hit in one inning.
“I’m really proud of my team. They competed just like they have all year,” Sy. John said.
Brady Munson took the loss for Eureka.
In game two, Isley Tulmau had two hits to lead the Loggers, while Munson and Morris each had a double.
Kalebh Hill pitched all seven innings for the win, allowing just three hits and no walks, while striking out 12.
For McKinleyville, T-Ryan Stumph was 2-for-2 with a double.
Next up, Eureka will play Ferndale to open the league tournament at the Arcata Ball Park on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
The Panthers, who are the No. 1 seed from the Big 5 for the tournament, will have a first-round bye and will play either Arcata or South Fork on Thursday.
The Loggers are now 13-6.
With the league tournament and NCS playoffs remaining, the Panthers are now guaranteed to close out the season with no more than four losses, which would give them the fewest losses in a single season for any team in the Big 5 over the past 15 years.
According to MaxPreps, their 19 wins has been bettered just twice over the past 15 years by a Big 5 team, last year’s Loggers (21-6) and the 2016 Arcata Tigers (23-6).
The Panthers need four more wins to match the latter’s win total.