For a season that started in the chill of February and ended here, on a steamy broiler-plate field at the University of the Pacific, it came down to two stellar seniors and a terrific supporting cast to slam the door.
Dylan Carlson maximized his final high school at-bat and dazzled in his pitching grand finale with more power and might, and Ryan Robards capped a remarkable prep career in grand fashion, powering Elk Grove past Tracy 8-1 on Saturday afternoon in 101-degree heat to repeat as the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion.
Elk Grove rolled Tracy 14-0 in Game 1 on Friday night, lost 2-1 to the Bulldogs in Game 2 on Saturday morning, regrouped and flexed its considerable muscle in the finale. Headed to Cal State Fullerton on scholarship or to the pro ranks after next week’s major-league draft, Carlson tossed a complete-game four-hitter, striking out 10 to cap a 6-0 campaign.
Carlson won’t pitch again in this sport, as hitting is his forte, and he offered a glimpse on Kleine Family Field. He swatted a three-run homer in the sixth inning of Game 3 to cap his team’s scoring. The ball sailed over the fence in dead center, traveling some 425 feet. It was his ninth home run of the season.
In Game 2, Robards dropped a ball in center field, allowing the go-ahead run to score, but he spectacularly redeemed himself on a diamond and campus that will be home for the next four seasons. The Pacific-bound Robards crushed a grand slam in the fifth inning over the right-field fence, shedding him of any guilt for his gaffe, and the Herd was on its way to a slice of history.
This is the 10th section title for the program in this sport, second most behind Central Catholic of Modesto, a small school that has won 11. It’s also the seventh title since 2003 for coach Jeff Carlson, who didn’t see all of this coming in 2002.
That season, Elk Grove reached the D-I finals, falling to Merced. Carlson, Dylan’s father, wondered if he’d ever get back to the finals, much less win one. But Elk Grove started rolling, winning the championship in 2003, three-peating from 2005 through 2007 and taking three of the last four banners to further solidify itself as one of the great dynasties in section history, regardless of sport or gender.
When Elk Grove started winning regularly last decade, Dylan and his brother Tanner, a sophomore third baseman, were often in tow as little lads learning to walk. Now it’s a full family affair, with Caryn, the mother and coach’s wife, cheering from her seat.
Coach Carlson hasn’t taken any of the titles for granted. He continues to heap praise on the entire roster and the coaching staff. But this title with two sons, and three overall with Dylan?
Pinch the man, already.
“It’s so cool to coach both sons, just phenomenal, and I’m getting a little emotional thinking about it,” Carlson said. “This is the most special one.”
Said Dylan, “This will be the title I’ll remember the most. We’ll all appreciate it.”
Carlson and Robards were also 4.0 students as seniors, earning praise from teachers for their leadership and class.
Robards was so excited with the title that he tied the championship banner to his neck, like a bib. Why not? He’s devoured the competition this academic year, earning Bee Player of the Year honors in football with a dominating season at running back, on defense and on special teams. He was superb all season in baseball, too.
“I felt really bad about that drop, but the guys told me they knew I’d bounce back,” Robards said. “For me and Dylan, we’re used to this, being the leaders, helping the team. It’s been a great year.”
Elk Grove especially showcased its superb pitching and defense in the postseason, from outfielders Mason Breiphol, Riley Lamb and Robards, to the infield of Josh Urps, Tanner Carlson, George Spithorst and Aaron Wong, to catcher Erek Bolton. Designated hitter Kevin Kyle and pinch hitter Bryce Jamias also produced big at-bats this postseason.
“It took everyone, including the guys in the dugout,” coach Carlson said. “I’m hard on these guys and want to see them succeed. I’m very happy for them. They’ve earned it.”