OAKDALE — Quality pitching has been a hallmark of Oakdale High's baseball program, having led it to Sac-Joaquin Section championships two of the last three years.
With Nick Vander Tuig returning for his senior year, having already committed to UCLA, the Mustangs felt they had the talent this spring to win yet another crown.
But their confidence was shaken when Vander Tuig underwent Tommy John surgery, ending his high school career. That shifted junior Brennon Williams from the bullpen to the starting rotation, putting him in a pressure-packed role with the Stanislaus District's top baseball program.
"We preach to these kids that they need to be ready to step into any situation," said coach Hondo Arpoika, who is 77-12 overall and 40-2 in the Valley Oak League over the last three years. "They're very aware of the high expectations that we've created."
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Expectations that Williams and his teammates have met, as witnessed Thursday.
Williams and Tanner Combs, each giving way to relievers in lopsided wins, combined to allow one hit as Oakdale swept Weston Ranch 11-0 and 7-0 in a doubleheader to earn a share of first place in the VOL.
The Mustangs (15-6, 9-1) are a half-game ahead in the win column and a half-game behind in the loss column to Sonora (8-0), which faces third-place Manteca (6-2) Saturday in a doubleheader.
"With Nick out, Brennon was one of those kids who had to step up right away," said Arpoika, whose plan was to use Vander Tuig and Combs as starters. "From the time the kids get on the field as freshmen, they know their moment could come at any time."
Williams expected his time would come next year, even though he had the skills to play for many varsity teams a year ago. He was dominant for the junior varsity, but there was no spot for him in a varsity rotation featuring Vander Tuig and Justin Jones — The Bee's Player of the Year and Cal's top recruit.
He showed those skills by tossing five innings of no-hit ball against Weston Ranch, walking one and striking out 10 — including the first nine outs of the game. Matt Butler struck out the side in the sixth.
"You take a guy like Nick out of the lineup and it means everyone has to got to get better," said Williams (4-1, 1.29 ERA), who hit a two-run homer in the nightcap. "We've become grinders, playing more small ball to get runs. It's also put pressure on our bullpen, but those guys have come through, too."
Zach Abbott pitched two innings in the nightcap, striking out five to close the win for Combs (5-1, 3.43 ERA). Combs struck out 10 and he too had a no-hitter before leaving, but the Cougars got an opposite-field single in the sixth for their only hit of the day.
Combs struggled early with his control, but eventually his curve and cut fastball began hitting their locations. It's been a wonderful spring for the senior, set to play quarterback in the fall before a spiral fracture in his leg ended his season after a game.
"It was my right leg, which I use to push off when pitching, but it felt good the first time I pitched this season," said Combs, who also went 4-for-6 with a homer and five RBIs in the two games. "I was trying to be too fine early in the game, but once you get a few runs behind you, it makes it easier to pitch.
"If you look at our hitting, Brennan, Kody (Simmons) and Cole (Branch) are some of the guys delivering. We've gotten offense up and down the order."
Oakdale is averaging seven runs a game, a bit surprising since Vander Tuig (.405, 29 RBIs, three homers as a junior) has been missing. Williams has had a role in filling the void, batting .444 with four homers and 17 RBIs — leading the team in each category.
Five other starters are batting better than .300 and the Mustangs have 11 homers in all, with Combs hitting his third. They've been successful on 56 of 64 stolen-base attempts, and Williams has a team-high of 10.
"That's the small ball in us, trying to scratch out runs where we can," said Williams, who has at least one hit in 12 of his last 13 games. "The expectation is Oakdale is going to win a league title and a section title every year. It's not so much the pressure that we have to win, it's the expectation that we will."
Oakdale won section titles in 2007 and 2008 — with Boone Whiting (who went on to be a freshman All-American at Centenary College) and Jones anchoring the first title — but fell in last year's semifinals in part because Vander Tuig was out with an injury.
Arpoika is looking for his Mustangs to not only return to the title game, but to win it this season.
"We have the talent to do that again, but we've got business to take care of first," said Arpoika, whose club plays Sonora twice the last week of the season in what could be a winner-take-all VOL showdown.