As Serra High baseball coach Craig Gianinno readied his team Thursday night just before the start of a West Catholic Athletic League tournament championship game, he was caught off guard by a player's question as his team gathered under the lights at Santa Clara University's Stephen Schott Stadium.
"He just walked up to me and said 'what's different about tonight versus the first time you went' " to the finals, Gianinno said.
"I thought it was a great question."
The first time Gianinno went to the finals was in 2010, his first year coaching the Padres, and it didn't go so well, with Serra losing to Mitty 8-5 on the same field.
"I don't remember much of it," he told his players on Thursday, "but I'll say this to all of you: Enjoy the moment. Stay in the moment. Try to take in the surroundings and the environment and really understand the opportunity you have to be in this environment tonight and enjoy it because you will remember it the rest of your lives."
Gianinno wasn't kidding.
The Padres capped an unforgettable WCAL run with a 7-2 victory over St. Ignatius, their 11th win in their last 12 league games (12 of 13 overall).
The victory gave Serra (18-12) a share of the league title with regular season champion St. Francis.
That the Padres got anywhere near a league championship game was especially remarkable after the team opened league 0-5.
At a team meeting after the fifth loss, Gianinno challenged his players to aim to get back to the .500 mark in league. That would have meant winning seven of their next nine league games, a pie-in-the-sky ambition considering the direction his team was going in at the time.
It turned out Gianinno sold his team short.
The Padres went on to win eight of their next nine league games to post an 8-6 mark.
"It's a tribute to the kids," Gianinno said. "They not only achieved that goal, they exceeded it."
Gianinno attributes the turnaround to the team's resilience. Instead of fracturing the team, the 0-5 start actually brought the team together.
"The early struggles prepared us for the position we're in now because we've been playing playoff baseball for a while," Gianinno said. "They understand it, and they're embracing it.
"They're battle tested."
He cited senior leadership as a pivotal factor, with catcher Collin Theroux providing a steady presence that set the tone for the team's ability to withstand the adversity while handling a prospect-rich pitching staff.
And whereas earlier this season the Padres were losing close games and extra-innings games that left the team deflated, they started building confidence from one win to the next.
"It was partly a mindset shift, just expecting to win and going out and having fun," Gianinno said.
The Padres will now hope to parlay that momentum as they go into the Central Coast Section Division I playoffs. They're seeking their first title since 2009.
But right now, the team is savoring the moment.
"It's really been a transformational year as far as growth and maturity for all 25 players on the team," Gianinno said.
"It's something that's great for our kids, our program, and our school."