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With 6-foot-8 Pitching Talent Darren Nelson Leading The Way, Senior-Heavy Granite Bay Is Loose, Confident And Ready To Chase A Title •

Story by JIM MCCUE | Photos by DOUG GULER

Records are erased and league titles meaningless when the first pitch of the Sac-Joaquin Section baseball playoffs is thrown next week. Especially in the Division I-North bracket where more than half of the 12-team field will have a legitimate shot at advancing to the section championship series against the South champion.

“Winning league is always cool, but it really has nothing to with the playoffs,” said Darren Nelson, whose Granite Bay team dropped its last two games to miss out on the Sierra Foothill League title. “It’s a completely new season once the playoffs start, and it’s about who gets hot rather than who won a league title.”

Nelson and the Grizzlies will likely miss out on one of the four first-round byes and will be forced to participate in a play-in game to face one of the top four seeds, but the senior likes his team’s chances of challenging for the program’s second section title and first since winning the 2001 Div. II championship.

“We will put (losing the final two games of the regular season) behind us and just focus on the playoffs,” Nelson said.

Granite Bay will face a very tough field that includes Delta League champion and two-time defending SJS Div. I champion Elk Grove, Sierra Foothill League champion Oak Ridge, and Monticello Empire League winner Vacaville. Other D-1 contenders include Delta League powers Davis, Franklin-Elk Grove, Jesuit-Carmichael and SFL dark horse Woodcreek-Roseville which has won seven of its last nine league games — including two against Granite Bay.

Darren Nelson

The Grizzlies’ chances will be boosted by one of the section’s best and deepest pitching staffs highlighted by their 6-foot-8 ace Nelson. The big right-hander compiled a 7-1 record and 1.48 ERA in the regular season, but appeared to be hitting his stride down the stretch. During a recent four-game stretch, Nelson pitched six shutout innings against Oak Ridge-El Dorado Hills on April 28, and then struck out 21 batters over 10 innings of work against Nevada Union-Grass Valley and Woodcreek. Nelson’s last regular start was a complete game shutout of the Timberwolves on May 8 in which he struck out 14 batters and walked none while allowing just two hits.

“I think that I turned it around against Oak Ridge and I am really feeling better now with the playoffs starting,” he said.

And Nelson has plenty of confidence in the rest of the Grizzlies, a senior-heavy group that has played together for years and formed a special bond this season, according to the team’s highest profile star. That confidence is shared by college scouts who have signed Granite Bay senior Matthew Voelker II (Loyola Marymount), Chris Daniels (Sacramento State) and Kenny LeBeau (Nevada). Voelker and Daniels round out the Grizzlies’ pitching staff and the trio also contributed plenty at the plate.

Voelker led the way with team-bests in batting average (.462), hits (36), RBI (20), and extra-base hits (12) while also posting a perfect 6-0 record with a 1.99 ERA prior to suffering his first loss in the regular season finale. Daniels was 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 30.2 innings pitched, and added a .323 average, 21 hits and 15 RBI. LeBeau, a slick-fielding shortstop, batted .333 with 24 hits, 28 runs and a team-high 14 stolen bases. Add senior third baseman Bobby Soran’s .390 average, 10 doubles and 22 RBI, and Granite Bay’s experience and leadership is impressive.

“We sometimes start all seniors, and we all have been there before in clutch situations and know what to do,” Nelson said. “And, because so many of these guys are going to the next level, they practice hard every day and put the work in to get better.”

The recruiting and scouting profiles of the Grizzlies’ seniors may have been a hindrance early in the season, though, according to Nelson. He admits to pressing and trying to do too much at the beginning of his final high school campaign, and believes that the senior core is now ready to relax and make the most of its last postseason.

Nelson plans to play well beyond the Grizzlies’ Div. I playoff run this year. He has signed to play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — where he will join sister, Taylor, who is playing volleyball for the Mustangs, and where both their parents played and studied in college — and expects to play at least two years of college baseball before possibly signing a professional contract.

But those plans may be altered on June 12 when the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft begins. Two local players were drafted in the first round last year, including 6-foot-8 right-hander Matthew Manning of Sheldon-Sacramento, so the two-year stint to the Central Coast could be cancelled.

“I will be 21 years old and eligible for the draft after two years of college, but I will see what happens with the draft,” Nelson said. “If I get some great offer, I will definitely take a look at it, but I expect to wait until (2019).”

Nelson understands he is still somewhat raw as a Major League prospect and hopes to continue to improve his game at the college level, where he will be focusing solely on pitching for the first time. An outstanding athlete who is a solid first baseman and started at center for the Grizzlies’ basketball team the last two years, he is excited about getting better on the mound.

“I definitely have room to progress, and I expect that I can get my velocity up by focusing on pitching in college,” he said.

Nelson already reaches the high 80s regularly and has good command of all four of his pitches — fastball, slider, changeup, and fork ball —  which are made even harder to hit by his tall frame. With his strong 6-foot-8 body, Nelson gets an advantage over hitters with his “downward tilt” and a stride that gives batters less time to react to his pitches.

While he can be overpowering, especially at the high school level, Nelson recognizes that he and his teammates can have more success if they relax and enjoy the ride — a ride that they hope ends with Granite Bay’s first Division I baseball championship.

“We realized after pressing early that we just need to play free and easy,” he said of the experienced team’s playing style for the playoffs. “It’s just another day at the yard for us.”

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