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By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tested in a tough conference, Santa Rosa Junior College enters the state baseball playoffs playing best when games count the most.

Given a high seed, Santa Rosa is set to stay home for the first two rounds. That should give the Bear Cubs a shot at returning to the California Community College Athletic Association finals. Santa Rosa fell a game short of the title game last season.

“We have to keep grinding and that’s what it takes in the playoffs,” said Chase Stafford, a returning starter and top hitter. “You have to win series to move on. We know what it takes.”

The state playoffs feature 16 teams in the north and 16 teams in the south. The first three rounds are best-of-three matchups.

The two remaining teams from each region advance to a final-four, double-elimination bracket. Santa Rosa opens hosting College of San Mateo. Games are set for Friday and Saturday.

“The only thing that matters is playing well in this series. San Mateo is a good team,” Santa Rosa coach Damon Neidlinger said.

Winning in the Big 8 Conference prepares Santa Rosa for the state’s best. Finishing second in such a tough conference gives Santa Rosa momentum going into the playoffs.

“We’ve gained confidence. We’re mentally tough,” catcher Spencer Neve said.

Santa Rosa won eight of its last 10 conference games. Santa Rosa is the No. 3 seed in the north half of the state playoffs. The Big 8 is sending seven teams to the tournament.

“It’s just a league of winners, there’s no easy games,” said Matt LoCoco, an outfielder from Piner. “Going into playoffs, the expectations are always high.”

Stingy pitching has been a strength all season. Santa Rosa’s staff has a 1.80 earned-run average, holding opponents to a .213 batting average. Santa Rosa pitchers have tossed 11 shutouts.

Leading the staff are starters Brandon Hagerla, from Petaluma, and Brett Obranovich, from Napa. Logging key innings out of the bullpen are JJ Jamerson, from Cardinal Newman, and Vijay Patel, from Maria Carrillo.

Steady improvement in all areas of the game has helped Santa Rosa return to the top tier of California’s junior college ranks.

Scoring twice as many runs as opponents, Santa Rosa is attacking the ball more on offense and tougher to get out. Leading the hit parade are LoCoco, Stafford and outfielder Dane Erbst, from Casa Grande.

“It’s come around. The more we see the different quality arms, the more comfortable guys will get,” Neve said.

Being ready for the range of defensive situations which can arise in games also has helped Santa Rosa limit rallies and keeps pitchers in games.

“We’ve made some clutch plays to really stay in games,” Stafford said.

With only three returning starters and a young pitching staff, Santa Rosa has come together well entering the playoffs.

Credit goes to playing a difficult nonleague schedule and surviving in such a tough conference.

“It really makes ballplayers out of all of us,” Stafford said.

CCCAA baseball playoffs

SRJC (25-10) vs. San Mateo (23-13)

At SRJC, best-of-three: Friday 2 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. if needed

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