Battle to the Last Out

Palisades’ Conrad Smith lines a two-run double to right field in the fourth inning of Saturday afternoon’s City Section Open Division championship game at Dodger Stadium.
Photos by Steve Galluzzo

Dolphins Fall to Birmingham 9-5 in City Final at Dodger Stadium

By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor

Childhood dreams came true for boys in blue Saturday afternoon and though the final chapter of the Palisades High baseball team’s storybook season was not the happy ending these Dolphins had hoped for, they could still hold their heads high after a 9-5 loss to Lake Balboa Birmingham.

“I mean, it’s Dodger Stadium, one of the greatest baseball fields on the planet,” Pali High right fielder Lucas Braun said. “I’ve seen so many Dodger games here with my family and friends and to come here and play a game with my guys is just unreal. It’s a pretty awesome experience.”

Palisades’ Kent Johnson dives back to the bag before Birmingham first baseman Erik Rivas can tag him in the fifth inning. The Dolphins loaded the bases but couldn’t score.

Trailing the defending champions 5-0 in the fourth inning, the Dolphins staged a rally that was a microcosm of their whole season.   Kyle Grassl led off with a single, Braun walked and Conrad Smith blasted a two-run double to right field—Palisades’ first hit—shifting momentum to the home dugout. Kent Johnson walked, Julian Jacobson singled to load the bases and pinch-hitter Jake Moore drew another walk to force in Smith. Cord Vanley grounded out to plate another run and Scissors followed with an RBI to pull even, 5-5. Palisades was poised to take the lead but a pop out left the bases loaded.   

“Once we got a feeling for the game and got our first hit, we got some walks and scored, the light went on and the energy picked up,” Palisades head coach Mike Voelkel said. “We needed one more hit to go ahead, which might have changed our mental approach a little bit.”

Instead, Birmingham got the lead right back in the top of the fifth on a bases-loaded walk to Massai Dorsey. The Dolphins turned a 4-6-3 double play to limit the damage and loaded the bases themselves in the bottom half, but Patriots reliever Sebastian Cueva got out of the jam. Still, Braun was confident his team would win. 

Catcher Johnny Tincher embraces pitcher Sebastian Cueva moments after the final out of Birmingham’s 9-5 triumph.

“Once we tied it up and had the bases loaded with one out the next inning I 100 percent believed we were ready to break this thing open and get a championship,” he said. “The ball didn’t bounce our way, that happens sometimes and it didn’t end up the way I thought it was going to.”

Kevin Olmos added to Birmingham’s lead with an RBI single in the sixth, then with two out  Salvador Velasquez doubled down the right field line to double the Patriots’ lead.

“We were only down by two runs, then they got that two-out, two-strike hit and that pushed it to four,” Voelkel said. “You could feel or sense the air kind of go out of us a little but I’m really proud of my players. We don’t have any transfers, we don’t have any recruits, we get outstanding grades, we’re outstanding human beings, and it’s a good community.”

Voelkel held a meeting with his pitchers the day before to talk about who would get the start and after a discussion everyone came to a unifying decision: Georgia Tech-bound Will Coquillard got the ball and after the Patriots put up three runs in the first inning he settled down and retired the next five batters, three on strikeouts.   Miles Kirshner came on in relief in the fourth before giving way to Wyatt Loncar in the sixth.

Palisades’ Jake Nadley hustles to first base after dropping down a bunt as Patriots shortstop Alex Ballesteros sets to throw to second base in the third inning. Nadley was safe on an error.

“To be on the field where my hero now Justin Turner plays every day… it’s an experience you’re never going to forget,” Pali High third baseman Jared Brecher said.

The eighth-seeded Patriots (20-16) joined Fremont (1946-48) and Chatsworth (2007-09) as the only teams in City history to win three upper division titles in a row.

“There must’ve been around 400 pitches thrown, the strike zone was different from the rule book, but they persevered a little better than we did,” Voelkel said. “Hats off to them.”

Palisades starter Will Coquillard throws a strike in the second inning of Saturday’s City final against Birmingham.

“They had a little something extra, they battled back from two-strike counts, they didn’t go down easy at the plate, they had hustle plays to beat out ground balls and they stole third a couple of times,” Braun said. “They did the things they needed to do to get the win.”     

Palisades was the first school outside the San Fernando Valley to make the upper division final in nine years and was seeking to become the first non-Valley team to win the title since San Pedro beat Poly 6-3 in 1992. Valley schools have won 46 of the last 47 titles dating back to 1973.

Palisades’ first trip to Dodger Stadium in 1982 (one year before the 4A and 3A divisions started) ended in a 13-0 loss to Cleveland in which future Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen threw the only no-hitter in City championship game history. Seven years later the Dolphins made the 4A final but lost 4-3 to a Kennedy team led by future Anaheim Angels All-Star outfielder Garret Anderson.   

The only time Palisades got to celebrate on the Dodger Stadium  field was after it routed Granada Hills 10-0 in five innings to win the Invitational Division in 2003 in then-coach Russ Howard’s last game. Now Pali High’s Assistant Principal in Charge of Athletics, Howard joined Principal Pam Magee in presenting second-place medals to each of the players and was handed the runner-up plaque by Voelkel during the postgame ceremony in front of home plate.

The scoreboard at Dodger Stadium says it all after the City Open Division baseball final, which lasted over three and a half hours Saturday afternoon. Birmingham won its third straight title.

“This will go up right next to mine,” said Howard, who was in his third year at the helm when the Dolphins fell to Kennedy in 1989. “I know how you feel, Mike.”

The Dolphins might not have made it to Dodger Stadium if not for Braun’s heroic performance two days earlier in the semifinals against No. 2-seeded El Camino Real at USC’s Dedeaux Field.

Braun struck out eight batters, scored the winning run from third on a sacrifice fly by Coquillard in the top of the fourth inning and caught the final out on a line drive  to right field off the bat of Cole Kitchen to preserve the Dolphins’ 1-0 win. In two postseason starts he threw 11 2/3 scoreless innings—the main reason why he was selected MVP of the playoffs.   

Braun battled pitch for pitch with El Camino Real junior Adam Christopher, who was the hard-luck loser after a complete-game four hitter with eight strikeouts.

Jake Nadley showed his range in center field, sprinting 30 yards to make a diving catch in the sixth inning after Loncar came on in relief. The Ohio State-bound right-hander caught a break in the ninth when a hard ground ball hit him in the leg but deflected right to Brecher, who fired across the diamond to get ECR runner Harrison Liang by a step.

Vying for their fifth City title in 10 years and first since 2016 the Conquistadores (23-9-1) left eight runners on base, six in scoring position, and the bottom seven in the order went a combined 0-for-18. 

After Braun struck out Andy Ambriz on a nasty curve ball with the bases full in the third, Grassl led off the top of the fourth with a bloop single to right. After Braun hit into a fielder’s choice, Brecher doubled to right-center and Smith was hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out. Coquillard laced a line drive to right deep enough for Braun to slide home ahead of the relay throw.

Lucas Braun reacts after sliding home for the only run of the game on a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning. He also pitched five gutsy innings with eight strikeouts to earn his eighth win.

Palisades finished 26-7—the most wins in Voelkel’s 12 seasons.

“It wasn’t easy, all the accomplishments were earned,” he said. “There were some tough spots for us along the way but the bonding, collaboration, the love they have for each other… it’s hard to do but we were rewarded and definitely blessed to have them come together in that regard.”

Exiting the dugout for the last time, Braun took a last look back.     

“What I’ll remember most is the camaraderie, the way we came together,” Braun said. “We had a couple big comeback wins and almost had another one here today. The way we always stuck together as a team and never really felt we were out. I’m going to miss these guys and especially the bond I’ve made with my fellow seniors.”