YOUNTVILLE — Though the Chico Nuts have had plenty of successful seasons, none have surpassed this one.
In the same year that brought coach Tom Stevens his 500th victory and the team's first Area 1 championship, the Nuts reached one more major milestone Tuesday in what has already been an impressive season.
In the championship contest of the American Legion State Tournament, Chico captured the California crown with a convincing 11-4 victory over San Mateo at Cleve Borman Field.
Chico emerged victorious by virtue of a late seven-run rally and a powerful performance from Luke Barker, who earned his 22nd win as a Chico Nut, tying Nick Bryant's mark as the program's all-time leader.
"It's amazing because we just feel like we've been working to reach this point since we first put the Nuts' uniform on," Barker said. "For Tom and all the Nuts guys that couldn't get through the Area tournament, it's amazing. As far as the wins record, it's great. I've been on the Nuts for awhile, so to get to that is awesome. But any of us would trade that for what we just got today."
For Stevens, the championship was significant not just to the 2011 team, but every one that came before it.
"It's been such a great season and such an incredible ride," he said. "They deserve it. Our whole program deserves it. We win not just for these guys, but for all of those guys that have gotten to a championship game and have lost or been on the bad end of things. It's for all the guys over15 years: Tyson Cross, Kyle Lohse, Evan MacLane, Nick Bryant. We won today for all those guys too."
While the final score suggests a lopsided contest in Chico's favor, the Nuts went into the bottom of the eighth tied at 4. The Shockers closed a three-run deficit in the top of that inning when Kyle Ferris, who went 2 for 4, sparked the San Mateo offense with an opposite-field single to right. Once the Shockers plated two runs, they were within one of tying the game with no outs and the bases loaded.
It was then that Barker came on in relief, giving up one unearned run while retiring the next three batters to end the threat. In his two innings on the mound, he would strike out two batters and give up just one hit.
"We got into a little trouble there, but my mindframe was just to attack," Barker said. "They were going to be ready, so I needed to be more ready. I had to get into the zone and attack them."
The Chico bats finally came around in the bottom of the eighth, when Zeke Colby capitalized on a bases-loaded scenario by ripping a two-run single up the middle, breaking the 4-4 stalemate to reclaim the lead.
"I walked in there knowing that I had gone 0-for-the game," Colby said. "As I approached the at-bat I just took deep breaths and knew I was going to get a fastball on the first pitch. I just wanted to take it up the middle or opposite field, anywhere that direction. I wanted to score that run."
From there, the Nuts put up five more runs on three walks and three singles from Sean Ryan, Brandon Coborn and Steven Perry.
Ryan finished with a team-best three RBIs, while Barker and Tyler Wells both had three hits apiece.
The Nuts now advance to the Western Regionals in Fairfield, where they will compete against teams from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.
In 1983, prior to the Nuts, a Chico-based American Legion team went to the American Legion World Series. The Western Regionals marks the farthest that the Chico Nuts team has gone since its establishment in 1996.
"I'm going to keep telling them to be great teammates and keep telling them to enjoy every minute of the experience," Stevens said. "You don't know where it's going to end or where it's going to take you. At this point teams are either hanging on or starting to roll. I feel like we're rolling."
Notes: The Shockers gained entry to the title game after losing to Merced 10-9 in the semifinals, but at the conclusion of the game, successfully argued a call regarding an illegal bat which ultimately gave them the win. In the championship contest, however, San Mateo would not litigate its way to victory. ... San Mateo tested Kyle LaClaire in the top of the third, when with one out, the Chico left-handed pitcher had runners on second and third, but struck out one batter and caught Danny Morales in a rundown between home and third to end the inning. ... Chico second baseman Kurt Laver came up with a key defensive play in the top of the fifth as he fielded a ground ball, tagged the runner heading to second, then threw to first to complete the double play. ... Laver went 2 for 4, and in the bottom of the eighth scored two runs when his grounder down the third-base line ricocheted off a San Mateo fielder's glove. ... One of the most perplexing calls of the game took place in the first inning on an infield base hit from Barker. The first-base umpire initially signaled Barker safe, then out. After the Chico baserunners and San Mateo fielders had cleared the field, the umpires reversed the call, putting Barker back on first.