CARY, N.C.—Southern California is a baseball kingdom and the Monarchs are in power. Mater Dei High of Santa Ana, Calif., returned to North Carolina to defend its 2012 National High School Invitational and faced a familiar foe on the final day. It was deja vu all over again with Mater Dei and Havard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) matching up in the NHSI Championship for the second straight year.
Mater Dei maintained its hold on the trophy, getting a complete-game performance from lefthander Jacob Erickson and beating the Wolverines 4-0. Erickson allowed just four hits and a walk while striking out eight.
"It's unbelievable, coming from a guy who is just a reliever to get the start in the biggest game in the country," Erickson said. "I had confidence in my team, confidence that they were going to score runs and I also had confidence they were going to play good defense out there. I just knew I had to go in there, pound the zone and throw strikes."
Erickson found himself in a serious jam early when he had the bases loaded, one out and third baseman Jack Flaherty up to bat. With a 3-1 count, Erickson got Flaherty to look at two straight strikes, ringing him up on a fastball.
"Everyone in the country knows who Jack Flaherty is," Erickson said. "Everyone knows he can easily put a ball in the gap and score three runs right there. I knew I just had to settle down and make pitches."
Harvard-Westlake shortstop Brian Ginsberg came up with a chance to pick up Flaherty, but grounded out to third baseman Ryan McMahon and Erickson escaped the jam—a huge blow to Harvard-Westlake's momentum.
"Their guy, who we had not seen pitch before and we've seen them a couple times already, made some pitches," Harvard-Westlake head coach Matt LaCour said. "Jack got caught leaning on a different pitch. He thought he was going to get an offspeed pitch and the guy snuck a fastball by him. Brian put a swing on a pitch that was there to hit. He just didn't get good contact on it. That was a definite blow to us. We could've seized some momentum in the game by putting a number on the board right there. That's a tough one to give away."
Mater Dei opened scoring in the third inning when freshman outfielder Josh Stephen drew a leadoff walk and advanced on a sacrifice bunt. Outfielder Austin Grebeck, an Oregon signee, then singled to left field to bring Stephen home.
Both sides traded zeros until the sixth when Mater Dei put two more runs on the board to go up 3-0. McMahon, a Southern California recruit and top draft prospect, smoked a single to right-center field. Sophomore shortstop Brandon Perez moved him over with a sacrifice bunt and McMahon moved up on a wild pitch before Brian Soper walked. With runners at first and third, Wolverines sophomore righthander Michael Vokulich attempted the typical fake to third, throw to first play, but it backfired and he was called for a balk, which made it 2-0. Stephen then came through with a hard single to right that brought Soper home.
Perez singled again in the seventh to bring Grebeck home and pad Mater Dei's lead. Grebeck went 2-for-3 with a run and RBI. He also chased down a fly ball in the left-center field gap that took some wind out of Harvard-Westlake's sails.
"I knew I had a bead on it, but I didn't know if I had to dive or not," He said. "Tyler (Adkison) and me communicated really well and he said I had it. It turned out good."
In the 2012 NHSI, the Monarchs' bats rolled the competition in the first three games before a tightly contest tilt with Harvard-Westlake. This year, it was all about pitching as Mater Dei got three complete games out of its starters and surrendered just six runs in 28 innings.
Losing in the championship for the second straight year is tough for Harvard-Westlake to swallow, but the Wolverines moved up to Division I in the Southern Section this year and could potentially face Mater Dei in the playoffs.
"If you had told me when I woke up this morning that we would've given up four runs, seven hits to that team on Day Four of a tournament, I probably would've taken that," LaCour said. "I count it out as a great experience and a great tournament for us overall. Going 3-1 against the teams we faced out here, I'm pleased with our effort. I'm pleased with the conduct of our guys. I'm pleased with how the tournament was run. I don't have enough good things to say, but you leave here for the second year in a row without that trophy in your luggage, we want to win. We're not real happy when we don't win.
"But I think we'll look back a couple weeks from now and say it was a great experience and got us ready for what we're going to face down the road."
Two years into the NHSI and only Southern California teams have appeared in the finals, reinforcing the argument that the region has the best high school competition in the country. They believe it and so will fans until another state finds a way to beat them.
"I think Southern California baseball is extremely strong," Mater Dei head coach Burt Call said. "There's a lot of great teams. It seems like every game we're in a fight and I think that competitiveness helps us down the stretch build mental toughness. Anytime you're put in a situation you're competing every day and have that experience, you're just going to get better and better. By playing quality teams and good competition, you're just going to keep getting better and better. That's always been my philosophy in scheduling games, to always play the top teams out there so when we get to the playoffs or in a national tournament, so that we have that mental toughness to compete and win it."