Menlo’s Griff McGarry, right, celebrates with teammate Ben Somorjai during Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Half Moon Bay.
Plenty has changed for the Menlo School baseball team from a season ago. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the Knights just keep winning.
After winning its sixth Central Coast Section championship in program history last season with a senior-laden roster, Menlo emerged as a contender again this season. The Knights (5-1 in PAL Ocean, 9-8-1 overall) laid claim outright to the Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division lead Tuesday with a 3-1 win over Half Moon Bay in a battle for first place.
First-year manager Sean Riley said his Knights, despite the magnitude of the game, handled the win like any other.
“Just a confidence builder,” Riley said. “Knowing how hard the kids are going to work and knowing what kind of team we have. They’ve been doing a great job picking each other up.”
Menlo’s starting rotation of senior right-hander Griff McGarry and Chandler Yu has proved a prolific one-two punch. McGarry earned the win against Half Moon Bay, emerging in Menlo’s biggest game of the season with his best performance, holding the Cougars to one run on three hits while notching a season-high 12 strikeouts.
Then in non-league action Thursday, Yu backed that up with a gem of his own, taking a hard-luck loss as the Knights fell 2-1 in extra innings at Mountain View. Yu was stellar, pitching eight-plus innings before issuing a walk to lead off the bottom of the ninth that ultimately came around to score against the bullpen for the walk-off game-winner.
“Chandler Yu threw a gem on the mound,” McGarry said. “It was fun to watch.”
Therein is the simpatico that has proven the secret to Menlo’s success this season. It was a tall order for the Knights to return to their winning ways, with the departure of former manager Ryan Cavan and 12 graduated seniors.
McGarry and Yu are both college-bound players. McGarry is the second member of his family to go the Division I route, having signed to pitch at University of Virginia. His older brother Matt, out of Menlo-Atherton, currently pitches at Vanderbilt. Yu, meanwhile, is committed to play for the Division III program at University of Chicago.
Riley said both pitchers’ season have been characterized by dominance.
“You just get used to them getting guys up and putting them down,” Riley said.
Then there’s the motivational presence of Riley. A former assistant coach at Serra in 2012 and ’13, and having coached at Santa Clara University in ’14, he has brought a more aggressive brand of baseball to Menlo this season.
“There definitely is a big difference (from last year),” McGarry said. “We’re a lot more aggressive at the plate and on the base paths. And I think this is better for the team as a whole.”
Riley accepted the job at Menlo after suffering a highly-publicized family tragedy when his son Calvin was fatally shot near Fisherman’s Wharf on Aug. 7, 2016. The tragedy didn’t stop Riley from being an integral and uplifting figure on the sidelines throughout much of Serra football’s Northern California championship season. And now, he has brought the same uplifting force day-in and day-out for his Knights.
“One of his key terms for us is gratefulness,” McGarry said. “We always take that into account. And it really puts our life into perspective. We’re grateful for the things we have.”
Menlo got off to a rough start this season, posting a 2-4-1 record through its first seven games, including a four-game losing streak, including non-league losses to powerhouses Palo Alto and Soquel. Through six league games, however, Menlo has suffered just one loss, falling 6-3 to South City April 4. The Knights bounced back two days later to wallop the Warriors, 16-2.
“We did play some tough games,” McGarry said. “I think the main thing was there was a lot of new players on the varsity team. Last year we were predominantly seniors and we had a lot of leaders on that team. We have a lot of new starters this year. So I think it took a few games for everyone to bond and to get on the same page.”
Riley describes this year’s Menlo squad as a small-ball team. That was evident in Tuesday’s win as the Knights produced single runs in the first, second and sixth. In the first inning, Menlo got on the board on a sacrifice fly from Justin Nam. In the second, Justin Kasser drew a bases-loaded walk. In the sixth, the Knights scored an unearned insurance run on an RBI single from Kasser.
Now in the driver’s seat of the Ocean Division — the Knights lead second-place Half Moon Bay by a half game with five to play — Riley said the confidence in the Menlo dugout is palpable.
“We’re expecting to win every game now,” Riley said. “We have a lot of confidence going now.”