Oaks Christian baseball, led by former Malibu Little League coach, has controversial end to season

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Royce Clayton, a former Malibu Little League coach, coached the Oaks Christian baseball team to a CIF title last year. The squad included his sons Elijah Clayton (left) and Royce Clayton Jr. The Lions lost in the first round of the CIF Southern Section playoffs this year. Photo from Royce Clayton

The Lions finished campaign with a 14-11 overall record, which included a 9-6 record in the Marmonte League

Nine months after receiving their championship rings, the defending CIF Southern Section Division 3 champion Oak Christian Lions baseball team’s season ended on March 5 in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs in a controversial fashion. 

The Lions, coached by Malibu resident Royce Clayton, a former coach in the Malibu Little League, took a 1-0 lead over the host Mater Dei Monarchs in the first inning courtesy of a home run by junior Chris Tampoya. That score held until the bottom of the seventh inning when the Monarchs’ Dylan Wetzel was on second base with two outs and his teammate Braden Ruiz hit a ground ball that was fielded by a Lions infielder, who threw the ball to senior pitcher Jaden Onaca covering first base. 

An umpire’s initial out call ended the game. However, as Oaks Christian’s players and fans in the stands began to celebrate, Mater Dei coach Richard Mercado asked the umpires to meet to discuss the play. The officials reversed the call, and Ruiz was ruled safe, after officials said Onaca did not touch first base. 

Wetzel rounded third base and scored on the play, knotting the contest 1-1. 

Clayton, a Major League Baseball player for 17 seasons, was incensed and said the Monarchs shouldn’t receive the run because the Lions players didn’t not pay attention to Wetzel since they believed they had the third out. However, the umpires met again and said the run counted because if the correct call were made at first base initially, Wetzel would have scored because he was far down the third-base line. 

With the score tied, the game went into extra innings. Ruiz hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to give Mater Dei a 2-1 victory. 

In all his years in baseball, Clayton explained, he had never seen an umpire give a team a run. 

“We all know once you call somebody out the play is dead,” he said. “The play is over. Not only did he make the mistake of overturning the call — which wasn’t right — he made a double mistake by giving a runner two extra bases. You can never give a guy two extra bases unless it’s an overthrow or some type of interference. You continue the play only if he is called safe.” 

The Lions were dejected, Clayton recalled, but didn’t put all the blame on the officials for their loss. Members of the team cried, but there was a touching moment. Onaca, who will play college baseball at San Jose State, handed over the team’s “Ace of the Staff” jacket, which goes to the top pitcher, to freshman Jack Laubacher, who spent some time on the mound during the extra innings. 

“It was kind of a passing of the torch,” he said. “Just seeing special things these young men have created for one another is gratifying. As much as we lost, we didn’t lose. We won the game.”

In addition to claiming the Division 3 title last season, the Lions also advanced to the CIF SoCal Division Baseball Championship’s title game. Two of the key players on that team were Clayton’s sons — Royce Clayton Jr., who now plays at LA Valley College, and Elijah Clayton, who won the Division 2 Player of the Year honor as a sophomore last year. 

The Lions ended this season with a 14-11 overall record, which included a 9-6 record in the Marmonte League. 

The Lions returned eight seniors from the championship squad, as well as Elijah Clayton and eight other juniors. Even still, the coach Clayton said the year was all about growth.

“There was a little concern about complacency, which to their credit, as leaders, they didn’t allow to creep in,” Clayton noted. “They became the leaders I expected them to be. We had some young components that became key factors. When you have freshman that make varsity, you want them to have the proper role models, guys to show them the right. They went far beyond my expectations with leadership.” 

The squad’s seniors included Onaca, Josh Cornelison, Tommy Farmer, Carson Teck, Finley Buckner, Gaelan Mendoza, Dustin Disney, and Joseph Steventon.

The Lions had three freshman mainstays in their lineup Laubacher, catcher Carson Sheffer, and outfielder/infielder Quentin Young, one of the most highly touted ninth-graders in America.

“We had some great seniors and upperclassmen for them to look up to,” Clayton stated. 

The Lions defeated a talented Westlake team three straight games in early April and downed Gahr, which won over 20 games this season, in the middle of the month.

However, Clayton said Oaks Christian played winning ball at the end of the season. 

“We had a formidable opponent in Mater Dei, but we won the game,” he said. “We handled adversity well as a team and are going to be better for it.”