During warmups before Saturday's Southern Section Division 2 baseball championship game, Thousand Oaks’ Max Muncy and Roc Riggio clasped hands in front of second base, their shared haven for three seasons.
As the last out settled into left fielder Easton Rulli’s glove, Riggio sprinted to double-play partner Muncy for one final exchange. The two leaped in jubilation, arms circling in a windmill motion. They stayed in the air, it seemed, for an eternity.
They landed as CIF champions. It was the last hurrah for the power-hitting duo. But the 3-2 championship win over Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills, and the 37-1 record they’ve amassed over the last two seasons, will stand forever in Thousand Oaks' history.
“This is a great championship for us, and I think it’s a great championship for the teams behind me,” said Muncy, who hit 11 home runs and is headed to Arkansas. Riggio, who finished with 12 home runs, is leaving for Oklahoma State. Both have MLB draft aspirations. Charlie Saum, the team’s catcher and a .388 hitter, is headed to Stanford.
Jack Wilson completed his fifth year as coach and will be leaving for other opportunities.
Thousand Oaks won’t play in this week's Southern California regional playoffs. Wilson said the Lancers weren’t aware of their eligibility until the section semifinals, and at that point players had made plans for showcases and vacations. That leaves Saturday’s championship — just the second trip to the final in school history — as the last memory for this standout group.
It’s a group that Wilson and Riggio both called “family.”
“I know that no matter where I am in the world, no matter where they are, we can all call on each other,” Riggio said.
The team traveled Friday to the Fullerton Marriott, a short walk from the game’s site at Cal State Fullerton, for a final night together. It was an unforgettable experience, Muncy said, full of the youthful exuberance of running in and out of each other’s hotel rooms.
That night, the group had a team dinner. Afterward, Riggio said, everyone went around and named something they were grateful for.
“Everyone said the same thing,” Riggio said. “Everyone was so thankful for our coaches. Everyone was so thankful for each other. Everyone was so thankful to be out here and do the things we love.”
Coming off an 8-0 start to last year before the COVID-19 shutdown, Thousand Oaks faced the weight of expectations. The Lancers were a consensus top-10 squad. Quickly, Wilson said, the coaching staff shut down any notion that the media attention meant something.
“That was one of our focuses, would be like, ‘Guys, I don’t care what our ranking is,’” Wilson said. “‘That’ll never help us win a game. So don’t post it … it really doesn’t mean anything unless you go out and get the job done.’”
They did, time and time again, led by the three-headed snake of Riggio, Muncy and Saum. They all filled different roles as leaders, Wilson said. Riggio, the enforcer, pulling the team together during lackluster practices. Muncy, the energizer, keeping the group loose with his charisma. Saum, the teacher, breaking down plays for teammates.
The team steamrolled opponents at every step of the way, thanks in large part to a humming lineup that hit .344 with a school-record 42 home runs.
The championship game was a break from form. Opposing pitcher Mason Molina of Trabuco Hills largely shut down Thousand Oaks’ bats, striking out nine and giving up just four hits. Yet guile and timely baserunning eked out the win: With two outs and the score tied 2-2 in the fifth, Riggio dashed home from third on a wild pitch.
He was “speechless” after the game, he said.
“To grind 30 games after the year we just had, this world’s been struggling,” Riggio said. “To come out here and do something great for our community and our fans and each other, it’s more than baseball at this point.”
Many of the jubilant faces amid Thousand Oaks’ trophy celebration will leave town. Wilson already is in Minnesota to coach in the Northwoods League.
But the memory of the greatest team in Thousand Oaks history will linger.
Division 1 champion Studio City Harvard-Westlake also will skip the regional, leaving the Southern Section without its top two teams in the final week of the season. Harvard-Westlake defeated San Juan Capistrano JSerra 3-0 behind a one-hitter from ace pitcher Christian Becerra. The Wolverines ended up defeating top-seeded JSerra three times this spring and won their first title since 2013.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.