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CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION DIVISION 1 BASEBALL PLAYOFFS – La Mirada’s fast start upstaged by Santa Margarita’s late rally in quarterfinals

May 18, 2023

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA-La Mirada High did everything it had to do in the early innings of its CIF-Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinal game against host Santa Margarita High. The Matadores jumped all over Collin Clarke for three runs in the top of the first inning and added one more in the second.

After that, the tide shifted towards the second-ranked Eagles as La Mirada was held to two hits over the final five innings and Santa Margarita jumped all over three pitchers in the sixth inning, scoring eight runs in a 9-4 victory last Friday. The seventh-ranked Matadores conclude a spectacular season at 22-8.

“We had a gameplan coming in off their guy,” said La Mirada head coach Jimmy Zurn. “He’s a good pitcher and we did exactly what we wanted to do. We were ready to hit from the first pitch that he threw. We got a little help with a sun-led double and then we bunted, and [sophomore first baseman Maverek Russell] got a hit and then obviously [senior pitcher] Eric’s [Jeon] home run. We hit some balls hard today. I can’t be disappointed with my offense. If you would have told me coming into this game we were going to score four runs, I would say we win.”

The game began with senior second baseman Aidan Haller reaching on an error and moving to second on a sacrifice from sophomore Aiden Aguayo. Two pitches later, Russell was safe on another error, allowing Haller to come home. Following a pop-up on the next pitch, Jeon sent a first pitch drive over the centerfield wall for his third home run of the season.

In the next inning, sophomore center fielder Travis Friend singled and moved to second on the host’s third error. Sacrifice bunts from freshman left fielder Noah Rodriguez and senior third baseman Alejandro Diaz put the Gateway League champions in good shape at 4-0. But La Mirada would get just three runners on the base the remainder of the game, none getting past second base.

Through the first three innings, Jeon was dancing around scoring threats from the Trinity League champions. He walked Tyler Ankrum to load the bases in the first but got Zach Fjelstad to fly out to Rodriguez to end further damage. In the next inning and with Luke Johnson standing at second, he struck out Blake Balsz to keep it 4-0. But in the third, Logan de Groot tripled over Friend’s head and scored two pitches later on Luke Lavin’s single.

“That’s kind of been his M.O. a little bit,” said Zurn of his star pitcher. “Even the first run they got…Travis just couldn’t get to that. So, it’s a leadoff triple, but we get out of it. We’re six outs away from the semifinals and we’re in control of that game. The baseball gods weren’t with us today.

“I’m proud of my kids,” he added. “Not many people gave us a shot to win that game. Let’s make that very clear. And we had them on the ropes.”

Entering the sixth inning, Jeon had thrown 99 pitches and was a few batters away from being replaced due to the pitch count. But he hit Fjelstad on a 2-2 count and gave up a double to Drew Rutter to end his day with the score 4-2. Bryce Humphry would be safe on an infield hit off freshman Jacob Oropeza, went to third on an error and scored on a wild pitch before Balsz put the Eagles in front with a home run over the right field fence. Four more runs came across in the frame as La Mirada set season highs for most runs allowed in a game and most runs allowed in an inning.

“He’s our guy,” said Zurn of Jeon. “That 2-2 pitch that hit [Fjelstad] was actually a really good pitch. We thought we had strike three and [the umpire] said it grazed his elbow and I thought it was a strike. Obviously, we pulled him after the double. Let’s call it what it is. The game is made of errors; errors happen. We make a throw on a bunt and it’s 4-3 with [actually] two outs with the fly ball to right and we’re not sitting here in this situation. It just kind of got away from us.

“We controlled that game; we had that game,” he continued. “They’re a quality team, but we’re a damn good team. And that one is going to sting for a while because that game does not indicate what that [final] score [was].”

Jeon, who will be going to Columbia University in the fall, finishes his senior campaign with a 7-2 record and a 1.40 earned run average, had 54 strikeouts and gave up 11 earned runs. He pitched 55 innings, over 20 more than the next guy.

“I just told him I love him,” said Zurn. “I simply told him I love him, and he gave us his heart and he gave us everything he had. That’s a darn good team and he gave us a chance.”

La Mirada, which had defeated Ayala High and Torrance High in the first two rounds of the playoffs, went 5-5 against CIF-SS Division 1 opponents. The other three losses came to Capistrano Valley Christian, Gateway league rival Gahr High and Tesoro High, all in Division 2. This is the second straight season the Matadores won 22 games and the 10th time since 2006 the program won at least 22 contests.

“We’re really happy with where we’re at,” said Zurn. “I told the kids after the game that a lot of times [at] La Mirada, you come up against these Trinity League schools and people think, ‘oh, it will be that they put up a good showing’. No, our kids have showed that we’re not just here to put up a good showing; that we can win this thing. We might be a year away or two years away, but we’re not going anywhere.

“Playing in a very, very good league, playing in the Boras Classic, playing in the Perfect Game Showdown…that’s one heck of a year,” Zurn later added. “And it’s a tribute to our coaching staff that pours their hearts in these kids and a tribute to the kids and how hard they work.”