Rob Willson: 2006 Sierra College Baseball Team Defeated Santa Rosa Under Incredible Circumstances

July 1, 2016
Sierra College baseball pitcher at playoffs, May 2006
Santa Rosa vs. Sierra College Baseball Game, May 2006 – COURTESY OF ROB WILLSON

Sunday May 21, 2006 Saratoga/San Bruno, CA

Santa Rosa Junior College vs. Sierra College

FINAL SCORE: Sierra 7 Santa Rosa 6

The game takes place in two different cities almost an hour apart on the same day. The stakes were very high for this game. The two teams were competing in the 2006 Super Regional with the winner advancing to the state Final Four. Sierra College and Santa Rosa Junior College would play one of the most incredible games ever witnessed under the most uncommon circumstances ever seen at the college level of baseball. 

It was May 21, 2006. Santa Rosa had the easier road as they only had to beat Sierra College once to advance. The Wolverines would have to sweep a doubleheader from the defending state champs to reach the Final Four. In anticipation of a long day, and this being the third night in a hotel, Sierra College declined to take pre-game batting practice on the field and gained an extra 30 minutes of sleep. 

The game started at 10:00 am with Sierra College arriving a little before 9:00am. The weather called for a chance of light rain later in the day, but the game began on time without any precipitation, but the temperature was unseasonably cold for late May. Sierra would send 5 game winner, freshman Kellen Wirth to the mound. All season long, Kellen provided quality start after quality start for Sierra. He was cruising in the top of the third inning with the score tied at one, when he felt a sharp pain in his throwing elbow and asked to see the coaches and trainer. After a discussion and a couple of practice pitches to prove nothing was too wrong, Kellen continued. He finished the top of the 3rd inning with no damage to his arm or the scoreboard. In the top of the 4th inning, Kellen again called for the coaches and trainers, this time realizing his elbow was too injured to continue. The fact that he continued after the first visit indicates how tough he is and how bad he wanted to win. Sierra would have to make a pitching change much earlier than they had hoped with expectations to play two games in one day. They chose another very reliable pitcher in David Martin. Martin was also very experienced as a 7 game winner on the season and he was allowed to warm up on the game mound due to the injury to Wirth. He was allowed whatever time he needed to get warm and used about 15 minutes. 

The game continued with the score tied heading into the top of the 4th inning. The Wolverines scored two runs of their own in the bottom of the 4th inning as the rain began to fall. With the score 3-1 heading into the top of the 5th inning and Santa Rosa batting, the rain began to increase and the field was becoming unplayable. The umpires decided to stop the game with the score 3-1 in favor of Sierra. West Valley College does not have a field tarp and could only cover the pitchers mound and homeplate areas with their small tarps. 

The rain was steady for 40 minutes thus making this field unplayable for the remainder of the day. The umpires, both coaches and the site director all decided that the game would have to be cancelled here today. There were two options; the normal one when a baseball game gets rained out is to go home for the day and resume the next day. With limited Community College budgets and both teams needing lodging, the decision was made to attempt to find a field that was playable on this day and finish. This would save each school over $1,500 in hotel fees. Both coaches and the site director decided to call three colleges approximately one hour north of West Valley College. 

It was a Sunday afternoon and most schools were out for summer vacation already. The schools contacted were Canada College in Redwood City, College of San Mateo and Skyline College in San Bruno. The committee was unable to reach Canada and San Mateo but did get a hold of Skyline Head Coach Dino Nomicos. Dino is considered one of the classiest and most accommodating coaches and he agreed to open his field on a Sunday evening so the game could resume. Remember all the time the coaches were attempting to find an alternative location; the players from both teams were trying to stay dry and warm in the dugouts. There attempts really didn’t work as all the players, their travel bags and equipment got soaked.

West Valley has very small dugouts so space was an issue. At approximately 12:50pm the decision was made to travel 1 hour north and continue the game at Skyline College. It took a while to gather all the equipment, and then both teams boarded their buses and headed north. So did the umpires, the site director, the protest committee and all the very loyal fans in attendance. One very loyal fan (probably the most loyal fan of Sierra College Baseball, Ernie Pippen) got word that the game would resume at the College of San Mateo so that is where he headed. 

Unfortunately, there was no one at San Mateo and Sierra’s favorite fan, one who rarely misses any games, including road games, missed the greatest game in school history. The Skyline baseball field has a surface called “FieldTurf” which is a synthetic turf and sand based, new drainage field that has amazing drainage. So without rain, the game would continue. The problem was that the rain didn’t stop and the entire drive north, it appeared that the game would have to be played the next day, Monday. Sierra stopped in San Mateo and ate lunch. Each team arrived at Skyline at approximately 4:30 pm. The umpires, fearful of darkness setting in, attempted to hurry both teams to start. As the Wolverines were stretching for the second time today, their pitcher Dave Martin attempted to throw more and realized that the four hour delay and very wet and cold temperatures were too severe for him to continue. 

It is now 15 minutes before game time and Sierra, already very thin on pitching was searching for a fresh, healthy arm. Rod Scurry, the pitcher who threw 107 pitched the previous day that held #1 seed West Valley to 3 runs in 7 innings said he would love to pitch. The coaches turned to each other, worried about Scurry’s health, considered the request and decided to allow him to pitch. He would have no other answer but yes from the coaches. Rod really wanted the ball and wanted to compete. They figured it would only be for one inning and then re-think the situation. Scurry pitched two innings on pure grit. His fastball after the first one he threw was far below his normal velocity of 86-90, but he competed with his mind and his heart. He carried the Wolverines into the top of the eighth inning with a 4-1 lead.

Sierra went to one of their closers Cory Kahn to start the 8th inning. Kahn was dominant in the 8th and appeared to be unhittable on this day. Sierra did not score in the bottom of the 8th inning, so the score was 4-1 Sierra College entering the top of the 9th inning. This is where it gets extremely interesting. 

Santa Rosa started the 9th inning with a single and a strike out. Their light hitting #8 hitter came to the plate and doubled just out of the reach of leftfielder Eric Deragisch. This put runners on 2nd and 3rd with only one out and brought the tying run to the plate. The #9 hitter grounded out to shortstop for the second out of the inning and the Bear Cubs scored one run on the play, making the score 4-2 in favor of the Wolverines. Now Sierra was only one out from advancing to the final game of the Super Regional. 

The top of the order are all tough outs for Santa Rosa and they proved it again today. Leadoff hitter Danny Pignataro came through with a two out single to extend the inning and now bring up the go-ahead run. Sierra closer Cory Kahn then walked the #2 hitter to load the bases for the best hitter on the Bear Cubs, their three hitter, Andrew McCall. The intensity was off the chart as both teams were fighting for such a big prize; a trip to the State Final Four. With a 1-1 count, McCall hit a high flyball to right-center field. Off the bat, it looked like a routine flyball, but we were now playing at Skyline College where the right-centerfield wall is 350 feet from home plate. It really doesn’t take much to hit the ball out of that part of the park considering the distance and the fact that the wind blows to that part of the field. The ball cleared the wall by approximately 3 feet for a dramatic grand slam to put Santa Rosa ahead 6-4. Santa Rosa head coach Damon Neidlinger (who coach Willson feels is one of the best coaches in the state) thought the game was over and the homerun was hit in the BOTTOM OF THE 9TH inning, but it was the top of the 9th. 

Sierra College baseball team celebrates after winning playoff, May 2006
Santa Rosa vs. Sierra College Baseball Game, May 2006 – COURTESY OF ROB WILLSON

After jumping up and down the entire time McCall rounded the bases and after giving him a very enthusiastic high five, Neidlinger walked to a very dejected Sierra dugout and gave Coach Willson a hug. Coach Willson’s voice was almost gone after such a long weekend of intense baseball games, so he couldn’t communicate with Damon that there was still some game left to play. Coach Neidlinger continued through the dugout and tapped each player on the head and back, complimenting our team for such a great season and told each of them that they were tough as heck and very talented and very tough to play against. The entire time, the Bear Cub players were jumping and screaming at home plate with the belief that they just earned a trip to the Final Four. They were confident because they have the best closer in California in Wil Morgan. Morgan had 18 save on the season in 18 chances. He had an ERA of 1.05 with 88 strikeouts and 5 walks in 58 innings pitched. As Neidlinger returned to his dugout he screamed to his team to meet down the right field line for what he thought would be a post-game speech and what the plan was for their trip to Fresno. This is when one of his assistant coaches told him that it is only the top of the 9th inning and they still needed three outs to finish the game. Neidlinger, very embarrassed, walked past the Sierra dugout and profusely apologized to Coach Willson and his players over and over. 

The other ironic situation was that Wil Morgan was the next hitter so he would not have much time to warm up. Morgan besides being a great pitcher also serves as the DH. Morgan flied out to right field for the third out and then rushed to the bullpen to get as many throws in off a mound as possible. It took much longer than normal for their team to take the field and the Sierra coaching staff was yelling at the umpires to hurry them up. They were giving Morgan much needed extra time to warm up. He only was able to throw 7 to 8 pitches in the bullpen and then another 8 on the game mound.

Sierra still shocked would enter the 9th inning down two runs and would have to pull off a minor miracle against Morgan. They got a leadoff single and then a walk to leadoff hitter Chris Hopkins and #2 hitter Josh Thompson was hit by a pitch. This loaded the bases with no outs for the Wolverines best hitter, Mickey Weisser. Weisser hit a line drive single to left field on a 2-2 slider which scored two runs to tie the game. On the play, Josh Thompson was thrown out at third base. This created a situation of runner on 1B with one out and Eric Deragisch up. Deragisch leaned into a fastball and got hit on the shoulder. Now with runners on 1B and 2B and one out, Sierra chose to pinch-run a much faster runner than Weisser at 2B, Jerry Lynch. Now batting was Andy Launier. Launier hit line drive up the middle on a 0-2 pitch for a single. Lynch was waved home and the throw was just late and the Wolverines completed one of the most improbable, miraculous comebacks in baseball history. To give up 5 runs in the top of the 9th and trail by two entering the bottom of the 9th inning and face the toughest closer in California and score three runs off him was simply amazing. The intensity and noise from the Sierra College dugout was off the chart the entire 9th inning. This victory forced a final game of the 2006 super regional.

The normal thing to do would be to play the next day, however Santa Rosa claimed that they had to take final exams the next day. The coaches, umpires and game administrators spent over an hour discussing this on the field as the sun set and it was extremely cold. Sierra wanted to continue their momentum and play the next day so Coach Willson spent much energy arguing to finish the regional on Monday. It was so hotly contested that the state commissioner had to be called to discuss the situation and at 10:30pm there was a decision made. The game would be played on Tuesday at Vacaville Stadium which was centrally located to both teams. Sierra had spent two and a half hours waiting at the TGI Friday’s eating dinner when they received the news. Sierra and their many loyal fans traveled to Vacaville on Tuesday and behind the brilliant pitching of Kevin Hammon who pitched a complete game and struck out 10 while walking none, the Wolverines beat the Bear Cubs 9-7 to earn their first trip to the California State Final Four. This was Hammon’s 12th win of the season. 

This story brings back many great memories and anyone who was lucky enough to witness this day would have to agree that this was “One of Baseball’s Most Incredible Days Ever”.

Sierra College baseball team group shot after winning playoff, May 2006
Santa Rosa vs. Sierra College Baseball Game, May 2006 – COURTESY OF ROB WILLSON