Cypress, which went undefeated in the Empire League, has several standouts, including, from left, Aaron Lizarraga, James Acuna, Issak Gutierrez and Dominic Fletcher.

Cypress seeks redemption in baseball playoffs


CYPRESS – It is best to be intense, but not too intense.

It is equally advantageous to be relaxed, but not too relaxed.

Exactly how intense is too intense and how relaxed is too relaxed is just what the Cypress baseball team is trying to figure out as the Centurions prepare for next week’s first games of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.

Since winning a CIF-SS championship in 2013, Cypress has been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round the past two seasons.

Cypress goes into this year’s playoffs with a 23-7 record. The Centurions went undefeated in the Empire League to win their fourth straight league championship and their sixth in the past seven years. They are ranked No. 6 in Division 1.

So expectations are high. Again.

Senior pitcher James Acuna was on the teams that were bounced in the first round the past two seasons.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Acuna said.

Every team feels pressure going into the playoffs. With the back-to-back first-round eliminations, and this year’s record, Cypress might be feeling it more than most.

How to handle the pressure, and how to find that balance of being excited for the playoffs but not overly excited, is a large challenge.

“When the playoffs come around, you’re pressing a little bit more,” said senior center fielder Dominic Fletcher.

As a freshman, Fletcher started in the 2013 championship game in which Cypress beat Temecula Valley, 5-0.

“After losing in the first round the last two years,” Fletcher said, “you get that bad taste in your mouth and you want to redeem yourself.”

A baseball championship might be the most difficult team championship to win in the Southern Section. One ball-or-strike call or a failed double-play conversion can change the momentum of a game. And with games lasting only seven innings, there are not many opportunities to overcome a critical mistake.

Cypress’ title in 2013 was in Division 2. The Centurions in 2014 were knocked out of the Division 2 playoffs in the first round by Temecula Valley, the team they beat in the ’13 final.

Cypress and the rest of the Empire League teams were moved up to Division 1 in 2015. New division, same result: The Centurions lost a first-round home playoff game to Long Beach Millikan.

Cypress coach John Weber, in his 11th year as the team’s coach, said there is a difference between Division 2 and Division 1. Mostly, he said, it is because of the high quality of pitching, and the pitching depth, in Division 1.

“What I have recognized – even though I haven’t gotten past the first round, so I don’t know much beyond that in Division 1 – but what I do know is that in Division 1 every playoff team has two dudes at least,” said Weber, using “dudes” as a synonym for “aces.”

“In Division 2, the very best playoff teams have two of them, the good Division 2 playoff teams have one and the not-so-good Division 2 playoff teams have a couple of good high school pitchers.”

With such depth and quality in Division 1 pitching, the competition is tight.

“The best team in the Division 1 playoffs can lose to the worst team in the Division 1 playoffs,” Fletcher said.

Cypress has the pitching. Acuna, a right-hander who signed with Oregon, is 9-0 with a 1.42 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 64 innings. Junior righty Raul Salazar is 7-3 with a 1.63 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 641/3 innings.

The Centurions have plenty of hitters, too.

Fletcher, who signed with Arkansas and was All-Orange County first team in 2015, is batting .362 with team highs of four home runs and 26 RBI. Senior first baseman Aaron Lizarraga has a team-high 38 hits with a team-leading .409 batting average and has driven in 19 runs. Senior shortstop Isaak Gutierrez has 30 hits and junior second baseman Isaiah Parra has 29 hits and 17 RBI.

Cypress has the players to make a deep run in the playoffs. How those players handle Division 1 playoff pressure, especially in the first round, might determine how deep they go.

“We can’t be ‘in the moment’ too much,” Fletcher said. “We need to relax and treat it like it’s just another game.”

Parra agreed.

“You’re nervous because you know it could be the last game of the season,” Parra said. “We’ve just got to play loose.”

Weber said the back-to-back first-round losses won’t change his approach. Cypress finds out which team is that first-round opponent on Monday when CIF-SS playoff brackets are released. The Division 1 first round is Friday.

“I don’t think I’ve changed my approach going into the playoffs since I started coaching high school baseball,” Weber said.

“I’ve talked to other coaches about that, too,” he continued. “They’ve told me that one time they had a loose practice and they lost in the first round, then the next year they had a hard practice and lost in the first round, and they had no practice at all and lost in the first round. There’s no real answer.”

So, Weber has concluded, it’s all about playing with a relaxed confidence.

“When a game means more sometimes we press more,” Weber said. “Our guys need to trust themselves, trust each other, trust the coaches and let it be. That’s easier said than done, I know.”

Perhaps lessons have been learned from 2014 and ’15, and 2016 will be different for Cypress.

“We’ve had a little bit of experience with it,” Acuna said. “I think we can cope with it and we’ll do well.”

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