The youngest team in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I North baseball playoffs that start this week also happens to be the one putting together the most impressive résumé.
At 22-5, Pleasant Grove finished the regular season as The Bee's top-ranked team after winning two of three games against previous No. 1 Jesuit.
The Eagles also had two wins each over No. 5 Oak Ridge (when the Trojans were top-ranked) and No. 8 Franklin.
Pleasant Grove won its first Delta River League championship after five consecutive second-place finishes to Jesuit.
But can a team with only four seniors in key roles win a tournament that has often gone to the veteran teams? The Eagles are counting on it.
"The kids have a lot of confidence," Pleasant Grove coach Rob Rinaldi said. "They realize they can play with anybody. If we keep playing well, keep pitching well, hitting, and keep playing great defense like we have, there's no reason we can't keep winning."
Six more wins under heavy pressure will crown the section champion. The North playoffs start Wednesday at Sacramento City College, a change of venue after more than 20 years at American River College. The winners from the North and South play in a best-of-three series in June.
Rinaldi has been Pleasant Grove's coach since the school opened in 2005, reaching the playoffs six consecutive times. He previously won championships at Woodland in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"That's a very good team, very talented, and Rob always does a great job," Jesuit coach Joe Potulny said, adding he wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles won the North and section titles.
Pitchers Zach Stilwell and Tyler Rathjen, shortstop J.Q. Folena and outfielder Michael Yanez are the Eagles' core seniors. Sophomore Nico Toni has caught every inning of every game, Rinaldi said, and sophomore Matt Stafford is 6-0 on the mound.
Junior outfielder Josh Adams is back in form after suffering a knee injury in the second game of the football season. He hasn't pitched this spring, but he may in the playoffs, adding another arm to a good staff. Stilwell and Folena are three-year starters, and Rathjen has a 5-1 record this season with a 5-3 victory over Jesuit to clinch the league title. In that game, Rathjen tossed six scoreless innings, prompting Rinaldi to say, "He was just fantastic."
Stilwell is 6-2 with losses to Granite Bay and Davis. He tied the school record with 15 strikeouts and walked one in a 5-0 win over Sheldon. He fanned 13 in a 3-0 win over Ponderosa in what is believed to be the first perfect game in Elk Grove Unified School District history.
"He's been incredible," Rinaldi said. "He doesn't walk people. He's fearless."
Stilwell is the calming influence on his team.
"I try to stay calm and composed, even though it's not easy sometimes," he said, laughing. "I love to pitch. I love the big games. We have a great team, and our sophomores have been amazing."
Folena is as entertaining at shortstop as he is productive at the plate. He makes diving stops, and he is batting .397 with six doubles, four home runs and 16 RBIs. Folena doubled twice off the wall at Jesuit in Pleasant Grove's 5-3 victory. As a team, the Eagles have 43 doubles and are batting .322.
Rinaldi keeps calling his Eagles "kids." He said they really are, with more ages closer to 16 than 18.
"The kids, I couldn't be happier for them," Rinaldi said. "It was just over a month ago when it all started to come together. They bought in, settled into roles, started working hard for each other. Now we'll see if we can keep it going."
THE BEE'S TOP 20
Final rankings (records through Sunday); PR previous ranking
Team Rec. PR
1. Pleasant Grove 22-5 4
2. Jesuit 20-7 1
3. Davis 20-6 2
4. Elk Grove 19-7 3
5. Oak Ridge 20-7 5
6. Granite Bay 20-6 6
7. Woodcreek 20-6 8
8. Franklin 17-9 7
9. Bella Vista 20-6 9
10. Yuba City 21-6 10
11. Rocklin 16-10 11
12. Oakmont 18-8 12
13. El Dorado 24-2-1 14
14. Antelope 19-6-1 15
15. River Valley 20-7 13
16. El Camino 17-10 17
17. McClatchy 19-8 16
18. Placer 18-7 20
19. Valley Christian 19-6
20. Capital Christian 23-3