We’re Past The Rising ‘Creek Stage — Extremely Talented Woodcreek Baseball Enters SJS Division II Postseason As NorCal’s Team To Beat •
PICTURED ABOVE: Senior Zack Malone raises a fist from second base during a win over Oakmont-Roseville at Sutter Health Park on April 30. (David Gershon photos)
As first-year head varsity jobs go, Woodcreek baseball coach Lucas Conn knows he was dealt a full house.
But in the extreme off chance that he didn’t, his pitching coach and longtime Roseville baseball guy Todd Malone would’ve been there to let him know.
“We told him, ‘Lucas, you just got the keys to the Ferrari. I hope you don’t blow out the clutch,’” Malone said with a laugh.
Well, the Ferrari is humming along just fine.
The Timberwolves closed out their regular season on Friday as NorCal’s No. 1 ranked team after posting a 25-2 record. Woodcreek, which had a 25-game winning streak snapped in its regular season finale, earned the top seed in the 16-team Sac-Joaquin Section Division II field. The Timberwolves begin postseason play Tuesday — hosting 16-seeded Laguna Creek-Elk Grove — having outscored opponents by a staggering total of 230-52
Even with a new coach taking over, none of this is of great surprise. Conn’s full house includes eight players who’ve committed to Division I college programs, including a quartet of seniors who’ve been playing with each other since leading the Woodcreek Little League 8-10 year-old All-Stars to a state championship back in 2014.
Braeden Sloan is one of those seniors.
The 6-foot-4 USC commit has dazzled as the ace of the Timberwolves staff this season. Through a team-high 40.2 innings pitched, Sloan has posted a 7-0 record and sterling 0.86 ERA. He also had 76 strikeouts against just 14 walks.
“I think all of this started off with everyone being on the same page with the same goal,” Sloan said by phone on May 4 as Woodcreek was traveling to Stockton to play Archbishop Mitty-San Jose for the rescheduled Boras Invitational NorCal Championship game. Sloan started the game and allowed just two hits in a 5-inning complete game as Woodcreek rolled to an 11-1 win. “That goal was a section championship.”
The Woodcreek baseball program has hung two blue section championship banners in its history. Both came in Division II with one in 2004 and the other in 2012. The Timberwolves have not been in a championship game since.
But Woodcreek Little League and area travel teams have had wide success during that stretch. Sloan and current Woodcreek High seniors Zack Malone, Jake Harvey and Caden Thompson played a large role in that success. In addition to the Little League state title in 8-10 year-old All-Stars (an age group that doesn’t continue beyond the state level), the quartet were part of a California Prospects 14U travel team that won a national title in 2018.
All four players made the varsity rosters as sophomores in 2020 — a season that ended after just five games. Last season, with COVID still present and many restrictions still in place, the Timberwolves went 22-4 and took home a Capital Valley Conference title. However, the SJS did not hold a postseason tournament.
“Last year’s seniors didn’t get that opportunity, and I think the juniors on that team realized that and didn’t want to take anything for granted this season,” Conn said. “They definitely came into this season feeling that the job wasn’t finished.”
The team had a very successful fall season, but several players weren’t satisfied. One of those players was Zack Malone, Todd Malone’s son.
“I knew if I wanted to really improve myself and get to where I wanted to be as a baseball player, I had to add mass and muscle,” Zack said.
He began working out five days a week, putting in hour-plus sessions with a personal trainer before school. And the results came quickly.
“He went from 162 pounds to around 180-185, and it’s been a game changer,” his dad said.
Zack has been the Timberwolves’ other primary starting pitcher this season. The Sac State-bound lefty enters the playoffs with a 6-0 record and 0.63 ERA. He’s struck out 62 and walked 14 over just 33.1 innings pitched.
With Sloan and Malone leading the way, Woodcreek has a team ERA of just 1.41 over 27 games. Twelve different players have thrown at least one inning for the Timberwolves, and six have thrown 11 or more.
Todd Malone, who played professionally and reached the Triple-A level of the Yankees organization, said the secret to Woodcreek’s pitching success was simple.
“Throwing strikes,” he said with a laugh. “We track every single pitch that’s thrown in every game. After every game, we send out how many innings the player has pitched, his number of pitches and his velocity. … Everyone wanted to see their velo starting out, but we made it clear that if they wanted to continue to pitch, they had to throw strikes. Slowly, their mindset evolved from ‘How hard am I throwing?’ to ‘What’s my strike ratio?’”
That mentality is evident in the fact that the team surrendered just 74 walks over 174 regular season innings. The depth of the staff, which also includes seniors Jadon Groves and Jake Whitaker along with juniors Noah Madsen (a Nebraska commit) and Cody Cooper, can be seen in the fact that seven different players have logged saves this season.
A pitching staff is only as good as its catchers and defense behind it, though. And Woodcreek is loaded in that department too.
The team’s catching duo is comprised of Vanderbilt-committed sophomore Austin Nye and senior Connor Enslow. Nye also shares some time at first base with junior Wyatt Harris. Second base is manned by Oregon-committed sophomore Dylan Green. The Nevada-bound Harvey anchors the infield at shortstop, and Oregon State-committed sophomore Conner Barth plays third. Thompson is a Santa Clara-bound infielder who missed the first 18 games this season recovering from hip surgery.
Several of these players contribute to a Woodcreek offense that carries a .361 batting average into the postseason. Harvey leads the team with a .578 average on 52 hits. Barth leads the team in RBI (31) and home runs (4). Eight different players have at least 15 RBI.
With eight Division I-committed guys and a variety of ages, no one would’ve been surprised if this group struggled to be cohesive.
It’s a testament to Conn and this group of seniors that the group has built such a strong bond.
“I think it’s very unique,” Sloan said. “You run across guys in this game who may not be the most humble if they’re really talented. But all of our guys show up willing to put in the work and looking for ways to make us better. It didn’t matter that it was seniors or sophomores, we all wanted the same thing.”
Zack Malone pointed to the work Conn has done in taking over.
“He’s been great with every one of our players,” the senior said. “One of those guys you really trust and have confidence in.”
Todd Malone, who was headed for coaching retirement but then agreed to stay on and help Conn through his first year, echoed similar praise.
“The expectations of the coaching staff was for this team to treat every day like it’s a game,” Todd Malone said. “Lucas set that tone on Day One. The way he communicates with each player is phenomenal. There’s nobody on this team, from No. 1 to 22, who doesn’t understand what their job is.”
So far, Conn has played his full house flawlessly. Now the coach is tasked at leading this team somewhere he’s been once before — to a section title. Conn was part of the Oakmont-Roseville staff when the Vikings won the Div. II crown in 2019.
“Just steer the ship straight,” he said. “A team with this much talent, I just need to make sure the kids care about each other and are good on and off the field. This will be a team I don’t know if I’ll ever forget.”