San Francisco State catcher Jason Hare throws to a base during one of the Gators’ 32 conference road games. (Brandon Davis / San Francisco State Athletics)

Golden Gators make history with second straight tourney trip

In a first, San Francisco State makes conference tournament for second year in a row

In October, the San Francisco State baseball team traveled to Stockton for a scrimmage against the West Coast Conference’s Pacific Tigers.

The Division II Gators got out to big lead in the first, and wound up playing 13 innings to a standstill against Pacific, a team that got out to a 9-1 start and currently sits at 21-22. As head coach Tony Schifano sat in the bus on the drive back, one thought kept going through his head: This group could be special.

Then came the injuries. Then came the rains. Then came the road trips. Even after losing five pitchers and playing 32 of 40 conference road games on the road, the Golden Gators are set for a first-round CCAA Tournament match-up against Cal State Monterey Bay on Wednesday at 3 p.m., just the second time ever that the Gators have made the conference tournament.

“These young men have gone through quite a bit this season,” Schifano said. “I think they’re feeling really good about where they’re at right now.”

Program records are spotty, but it would appear that this season would mark the first time that San Francisco State has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

After going 24-28 overall and 23-21 in conference a year ago to make the tournament, the Gators’ fall got off to an auspicious start. Closer Cameron Crone went down due to nerve issues in his shoulder. Junior starter Hudson Hartley, who had long battled elbow issues, went down in January with elbow inflammation. Friday-night starter Jeff Piver went down for a month.

Then, record rains in February — more than seven inches from Feb. 1 to Feb. 17 — swamped Maloney Field’s drains.

As catcher Jason Hare walked down the steps to Maloney for practice in early February, he was greeted with an unusual sight: All of right field was under water.

The rains wiped out most of a series against Concordia-Portland, and before the first conference series of the season, the visiting Chico State coaches had walked the field and declared it unplayable, shifting the series up north. The Gators coaching staff then had to re-schedule two months of practice on the fly as the rains continued.

Instead of taking fly balls and practicing outfield cutoffs, the team would take ground balls and throw flat-ground sessions on a campus turf field designed for soccer, and then would drive 20 minutes south to a batting cage facility in Pacifica for night batting practice. Bullpens were thrown when breaks in the rain lined up with class schedules.

It took two weeks after another three more inches of rain fell in early March for the field to dry out, and the Gators didn’t play home conference games until two of the final three weeks of the regular season.

Still, the Gators (23-19, 21-19 CCAA), armed with 10 seniors, started 11-3-1 on the season, and climbed into the Division II West Region rankings, all the way up to No. 4. They were ranked No. 17 in the nation, in position to make Western Regionals, outright.

“Going into last year, we were historically bad, and we didn’t really have a reputation or an identity,” Hare said. “We didn’t have a winning personality, and towards the end of that year, we started winning and gained a personality. We carried that into the beginning of this year.”

Then, junior Jack Higgins, who moved in to replace Piver, sprained his ankle at Cal State Stanislaus in late April. Josh Romero — a candidate for the conference’s releiver of the year — went down with a shoulder injury for the last month of the season.

Hare, who caught 294 out of 356 2/3 innings (nearly 83%), insisted on catching as many bullpens as possible to acquaint himself with every pitcher on staff, “Even the last guy in the bullpen,” Schifano said.

“I don’t like watching other guys work while I’m just sitting around,” Hare said. “If you don’t work, it’s going to come back and bite you in the butt.”

“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” said Schifano, who likened Hare’s leadership style to that of Buster Posey. “Jason’s not the most vocal leader, but guys follow him.”

San Francisco State managed the fourth-best ERA (4.54) in the CCAA and averaged 5.35 runs per game, fueled by eight homers and 28 RBIs from senior first baseman Harley Lopez, a .322 average and 24 runs from Hare and six regulars slugging over .400. The team bonded by playing a summer camp/party game called Mafia in the backs of buses — games that could take up to an hour — to pass the time on their long road trips.

They stumbled down the stretch, though, going 3-8 as injuries and fatigue caught up with them, and fell out of the national rankings. They aren’t an automatic Regional team now. They likely have to win the conference tournament to go dancing, though having to play 32 conference games on the road may give them some sympathy with the selection committee.

“I think we’ve proven what we can be when we’re healthy,” Schifano said.

They’ll get to prove that on Wednesday, as they travel back to Stockton, this time to face the Otters in the first round for the second straight year at Banner Island Ballpark.

rgorcey@sfexaminer.com

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