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Season that saw multiple tragedies ends in triumph for Rincon Vallley Little Leaguers

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After a season filled with unimaginable heartbreak, the Rincon Valley Little League 10Us brought home a championship, winning 11 straight games to claim the league’s first state title.

It was a season that started with a pall over the entire community, as a quarter of the league’s 400 families lost their homes in the October fires. The same flames claimed $100,000 of their equipment.

Then last month, longtime coach Tim Gillaspie was shot to death while trying to protect his family and friends from a man armed with guns and bombs who was targeting his own family.

Last week, after a remarkable undefeated run through district All-Stars, sectionals and then the Northern California state tournament, the team defeated powerhouse Sunnyvale, 7-4, in the championship game Thursday in Palo Alto.

Two other local teams, the Petaluma American Little League 10 and 12 year olds, fell just short in their championship drives.

“It’s kind of just sinking in,” said manager Todd Buonaccorsi. “The whole community has gone through a lot, with the fires then with Tim. I kept a Mets hat in the dugout for him. We were both Mets fans. Every time it was close, I’d grab onto that hat and we’d get through it.”

Though the team went 11-0 in its post season, it wasn’t a cakewalk. They had to come back more than once, sometimes from huge deficits.

Through three tournaments, Rincon Valley outscored its opponents 98-36, though all the state-level games were close.

In the first game of the season-ending NorCal state tournament, Fair Oaks of Orangevale scored five runs in the first inning, including a grand slam.

“I thought we were going to get 10-run ruled,” Buonaccorsi said. “But we came back and won, 7-5.”

The next game, Rincon Valley went up 8-1 only to blow the lead and fall behind 11-10. Only a last-inning comeback kept their winless streak alive.

“You have to have games like that, when you have to come back or hold onto leads,” he said. “It builds your intestinal fortitude.”

That was true for his team, as they faced Sunnyvale — a team that always seems to be among the best, Buonaccorsi said.

Again, his team fell behind, 5-3, and starting pitcher Owen Wyffels took a line drive to his hand.

“He could barely hold the bat,” Buonaccorsi said.

With doubts creeping in, a young player offered the coach words of wisdom.

“Ben Stark very quietly said to me, ‘coach, we’re going to win this, the bottom of the order always comes through,’ — and they totally did, setting things up for Owen’s moment,” Buonaccorsi said.

The lessons in gutsiness sunk in as Wyffels came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, Rincon Valley down, 5-4, with two outs.

Wyffels smacked a two-run double for the 6-5 walk-off win.

“In the end I think this group of kids is especially talented and found ways to win where other kids or teams would have given up. That’s part of the beauty of being 10 also, the kids just keep playing baseball regardless of the situation and let their talent rise to the occasion,” Buonaccorsi said.

“We had walk-offs, we had blowouts, we had great pitching, a variety, you name it we had it,” said coach Jeff Chavez. “It was great. I call Todd the wizard because he’s a tactician and always making strategic moves.”

Strangely, the title game was probably the least dramatic of all, the coaches agreed.

It was the second meeting for Rincon Valley and Sunnyvale, but Chavez knew they wouldn’t go down easily.

“It definitely was the best game we played,” Buonaccorsi said. “We went ahead and held the lead. I always felt we were in control.”

Rincon Valley went up 1-0 in the first inning and starting pitcher Jack Mountanos led the team into the fifth.

The teams traded runs until Rincon Valley put it away in the fifth inning to lead 7-4 and close the door.

“This game wasn’t as climatic as others,” Chavez said. “The others were scrappy, scrappy, scrappy.”

The title brings a welcome relief to the tight-knit baseball community, who banded together after the fires to rebuild the league’s equipment stash and give the kids – and adults – something to focus on besides the sadness and loss brought on by the fires.

Gillaspie’s memory was with them the entire time, Chavez said.

“There were a lot of emotions,” he said. “We held his hat up. We made sure (his family) were part of this.

“And we swept it. That to me is amazing.”

Buonaccorsi said he went into the postseason hoping to win District and maybe a game or two in Sections.

“This run winning the NorCal state title, going undefeated, is something special these kids will never forget,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and an emotional roller-coaster, but completely worth it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.