The Irvine Valley baseball team's magical post-season run continues in the Super Regionals starting this Friday at Palomar.
Irvine Valley, seeded 17th has won all three of its CCCAA playoff games so far, coming from behind to beat Los Angeles Mission on the road, 16-6, in a playoff play-in game and then shutting out and sweeping second-seeded Oxnard last weekend in Oxnard.
IVC beat Oxnard, 8-0, last Friday, and then, 1-0, on Saturday to move on and face top-seeded Palomar.
Palomar, which won the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference for the fifth straight year this season and has a record of 32-6 overall, remained No. 5 in the National Community College baseball rankings compiled by Perfect Game USA of Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the latest rankings released Wednesday.
Palomar, led by conference player of the year Francis Christy and first-team all-conference players Jake Barnett, Taylor Turski, Taylor Russell and Dylan Brauldt, defeated Riverside in two straight games in a regional last weekend. Palomar won the first game, 7-3, and then the second game, 4-2.
Irvine Valley will head into the series as confident as ever, though.
The Lasers have a record of 23-16 overall and have won five straight contests. They were also part of one of the top conference's in the state. The Orange Empire Conference has five of the eight teams in the Super Regionals.
"This is a fun group to be a part of," Irvine Valley coach Kent Madole said. "I could not be more proud of all that they have accomplished so far. It's been a privilege to coach a group of young men like this.
"This is a special group, for sure."
Irvine Valley has featured seven to eight freshmen in the starting lineup for a good part of the season. They include first baseman Lucas Tancas, second baseman Cory Mendoza, shortstop Jordan Gillerman, catcher Branden Williams, left fielder Clint Jack, center fielder Dillon Millar, outfielder/designated hitter Trey Ryan and designated hitter Robbie Espinosa.
Tancas, who has signed with Long Beach State, is batting .356 with 16 RBI. He has started every game for IVC this season.
Ryan is batting .322, Millar is hitting .282, Jack, who has played in all but one game, is hitting .276 and Espinosa is batting .261.
Hamilton is hitting .303 with a team-best three home runs and 24 RBI.
"We knew going into this year that this group had talent," Madole said. "The coaching staff did a great job in their recruiting efforts to not only bring in solid talent, but players with the right kind of make-up and character.
"We also knew we were young going into this year. We knew the growing pains were going to be a big part of the early part of the season. The players deserve so much credit for staying committed to the learning process and remaining competitive through the failure moments and stretches of frustration. "
IVC dropped four of five games at one point in the season and was up and down at times early in the conference portion of the schedule. But the Lasers stuck with it.
Two big wins late in the season were key - a 8-6 victory in 11 innings at Orange Coast and then a 2-1 victory over Saddleback. After losing at Saddleback, IVC then won back-to-back games over Santa Ana to close out the regular season. With five outs remaining in its season, IVC scored seven unanswered runs to win at Santa Ana, 7-6, on April 23.
The Lasers have ridden that momentum ever since.
"They've been unselfish," Madole said. "All of the guys have really done everything the coaching staff has asked of them. They've been along side each other in times of disappointment and have been quick to celebrate each other's success. The camaraderie is awesome. The recent run that we've had since the last few weeks of conference up to this point is just the culmination of months and months of their hard work. They have grinded through the adversity, trusted the process and stayed the course. It has been remarkable what these guys have done."
Even more remarkable have been the efforts turned in by Irvine Valley's top two pitchers. Sophomore right-hander Justin Zielinski and freshman lefty Ryan Abady have been unhittable for most of the year.
Both have been among the top pitchers in the state this season.
Zielinski has a record of 9-2 with a 1.13 ERA in 111.1 innings pitched. He has compiled eight complete games and three shutouts with the latest coming in the team's 1-0 win over Oxnard to close out that series last Saturday.
"He embodies the heart and soul of the team," Madole said. "His personal commitment and accountability to his leadership role and being the ace of the staff has been remarkable. Justin holds himself to a very high standard. His conditioning, running, core work and work ethic on flat ground and bullpen sessions has set the bar for the rest of the staff. With him, it is the classic case of 'actions speak louder than words.'"
Zielinski has set numerous records at Irvine Valley so far this year.
His eight complete games shattered the previous program record of four by Ryan Goodbrand in 2011.
His 1.13 ERA so far tops that of Chris Saddoris (1.79) in 2005 and his three shutouts bests Cody Fitzgerald (two) in 2011.
Zielinski's 111.1 innings pitched is now No. 1 in program history. Saddoris held the previous mark of 105.1 in 2005.
Zielinski is tied for most wins in a season with nine with Danny Heben from 2008.
"He has no excuses, uses no shortcuts and has no ego at all," Madole said. "He is an undeniable example for the rest of the staff to model after. Without him, we don't have even a shadow of the year we've had.
"He has the ability to fearlessly and consistently pound the zone (just 14 walks in 111.1 innings). We've never had as dependable and durable starting pitcher in the history of the program. The bigger the game, the better he has been. Justin has been a joy to coach and I'm thrilled for him and the success he's had."
Similar success has been turned in by Abady this year.
"He is Zielinski's counter-part in our one-two punch," Madole said. "Ryan and Zielinski have had an intra-program competition to one-up each other after each outing. It is a testament to the mutual respect and inspiration they have and get from being teammates."
He has a record of 8-3 with a 1.90 ERA in 94.2 innings. Abady has four complete games and two shutouts with the latest one being IVC's 8-0 win in the opening game at Oxnard last Friday.
Opponents are hitting just .230 against him this season.
"Ryan has been incredibly impressive all year long," Madole said. "He shows a presence, poise and maturity on the mound that goes beyond his freshman status. His four complete games and nearly 95 innings pitched are a reflection of his durability and desire to compete and win. It has been very rewarding to see him grow and develop this year.
"It has been very rewarding to see him grow and develop this year and I am excited for his sophomore year and the opportunities that will open up for him down the road."