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RIVERSIDE — If you take a second to step back and really look at and listen to the Santa Maria baseball team, something immediately stands out. 

Almost every player wears the same sweatband, a small white one with the No. 22 and a name embroidered in red. All of these bands are old and stained with dirt, pine tar, sweat and just about everything else a baseball player touches.

These bands started out white, but now they're mostly brown. 

At every game, a Saints jersey is in the dugout, set on an old plastic hanger. That jersey also has No. 22 on it.

Now, when you listen to the Saints, you hear every team huddle end with the chant "22."

If you were in the dugout during the Saints' championship game against Moreno Valley, you saw and heard all those things; the sweat bands, the jersey and the chants. 

Who are the Saints doing this for? What is this number 22 all about?

They're doing it for Ivan Nunez. That's who 22 is all about.

Ivan was a sophomore at Santa Maria High when he went missing on Dec. 26, 2015, the day of his 16th birthday. 

Some two months later, Ivan's body was found near a barn in Nipomo. Authorities ruled his death a suicide. 

Ivan never got to play his sophomore season at Santa Maria. He also never got to play his junior year, which would've ended on Saturday, with Ivan being crowned a CIF champion. 

Though he wasn't there as the Saints beat Moreno Valley 9-0 in the Division 6 championship game, there were signs of his presence all over. 

Immediately after the Saints got the final out, capping an historic postseason run, Ivan's No. 22 jersey was making its way to the field. 

Santa Maria coach Alex Lopez immediately handed the hanger to Isiah Garcia, a close friend and former teammate of Ivan's. 

Garcia got down on one knee and looked down, crossed his heart in prayer and then looked up skyward, making sure Ivan knew the Saints had won and making sure he knew he wasn't forgotten.

"It's unbelievable," Garcia said after the Saints' win in Riverside. "We made it this far and the team worked so hard. We just did it for Ivan."

Many of the Saints' players knew Ivan in Little League and that's why many members of the team dyed their hair blonde. Ivan said that's what the team would do if it ever made the playoffs.

The Saints ended a 12-year playoff drought last season. On Saturday, they ended a 60-year baseball championship drought. 

How would Garcia sum up the 2017 Saints' championship season? 

"Everything's for 22," he said. 

Santa Maria outfielder Bobby Ruiz was in the same grade as Ivan. To hear about Ivan's impact on this team, you don't even have to ask. It's always in the back of the players' minds. 

"It feels good to do it, it feels good to do it for Ivan," Ruiz said Saturday of the team's title win. "He told us his freshman year that he always wanted to make it to CIF."

The Saints didn't just go to CIF, they won a CIF championship.

When asked how Ivan would celebrate Saturday's CIF championship, Ruiz said Ivan would be "laughing, smiling. That's all I remember him doing."

So that's what members of the Santa Maria baseball team did after they won a CIF title on Saturday. They were laughing and smiling, because that's what Ivan would be doing, too.

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Sports Editor

Alumni Fresno State