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Don’t for a second think that the pressure of being the No. 1 team in the nation or of attempting to become the first undefeated team in the top division of the CIF Southern Section in 32 years bothered the Norco High softball team on Saturday night at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.
On this night, it was just a matter of the winning team from Los Alamitos having a more dominant pitcher and the ball bouncing favorably on just a few more line drives. The Griffins’ 3-1 win avenged an earlier 1-0 loss to Norco at the Michelle Carew Classic and meant that they and not the Cougars would finish No. 1 in the final Cal-Hi Sports state rankings and in the final FloSoftball national rankings.
Norco’s No. 1 ranking coming in was as easy to figure out as can be. Led by pitcher/hitter Taylor Dockins and a power-packed lineup that had been hitting .560 in the postseason, the team improved to 33-0 after its semifinal win vs. Grand Terrace. There was still the remaining task, however, of beating a Los Al squad that has been in the top five of the national rankings for most of the season and was determined to get that avenging win.
“Not losing a game at all was their motivation, but for us we’ve never lost to a team coming back to play them a second time,” said Los Al senior Mary Iakopo. “We had the goal of playing them a second time in this game for a long time.”
Victorious head coach Rob Weil, who won his first CIFSS title for Los Al after collecting five of them at Pacifica of Garden Grove, agreed.
“Last year, we lost to OLu (Orange Lutheran) in the semifinals and we were 21 outs away from this game,” added Weil. “It was kind of our motto to get into this game and once you’re in, anything can happen.”
Things started happening for the Griffins in the bottom of the third inning. Jenna Kean started it off with an infield hit and was followed by a liner from leadoff hitter Allison Englant that was off the glove of Dockins for a second straight hit. With runners at second and third later in the inning after a double steal and one out, Iakopo stepped up and ripped another hard shot at first base that was slowed down but rolled down the right field line. Both Kean and Englant scored and while the official scoring showed an error no one on press row thought it was an error and credited Iakopo with a two-run single. Further damage for Norco was limited when the next batter hit into a double play.
Los Al added another run in the bottom of the fourth. Cami Sellers sparked the rally with a one-out double. On the next at-bat, Caitie Ladd hit a grounder in which it appeared Norco had thrown out pinch-runner Myah Iakopo at third but that call was reversed, creating a first-and-third situation with one out. Allisha Martinez then hit another grounder in which the only play was at second base, allowing Iakopo to score.
Norco, meanwhile, didn’t get its first hit off of Los Al starting pitcher Ryan Denhart until Dockins lined a single up the middle to lead off the fifth inning. The Cougars, however, weren’t able to advance a runner into scoring position later in the frame.
After an uneventful sixth inning, other than a double by Los Al’s Alexa Schultz, Norco showed its championship pedigree in the top of the seventh. Needing three runs to keep their national title hopes alive, Mikayla Allee got the Cougar faithful pumped up with a soaring solo homer. After Denhart got super soph Kinzie Hansen to look at a third strike, Dockins then came through with a single. That set it up for sophomore Paige Smith, who like Hansen also struck out on a called strike. Sierra Marshall was up next and smoked a drive toward the left-center grap but Los Al’s Kean made a diving catch for the third out.
If Kean had not made the catch, Dockins would have scored the second run and the tying run would have been at least on second base.
“We came up with a good game plan together,” Weil said of Denhart. “She did a great job and we were fortunate we also made some big plays behind her.”
“Those early runs were really good for me,” said Denhart, the Maryland recruit who finished with a three-hitter, no walks and struck out six. “It took the pressure off. Absolutely.”
Norco head coach Rick Robinson wasn’t happy about some of the umpiring calls, but also credited Denhart and the Griffins.
“She did a great job and Rob did a great job setting up our hitters,” said Robinson, who had a No. 1 team in the nation at Norco in 2012. “It’s just one of those things. I think if these two teams played 10 times, it would be 5-5. We knew that going in they were a great team. Tonight, they just played better than we did.”
“I won it (CIFSS D1 title) as a sophomore and now I know what it feels like to win and lose,” said Dockins, who was a sentimental choice for anyone with a heart due to her courageous return from cancer surgery. “I’m just blessed to be out there with my teammates. It didn’t turn out the way we wanted and it’s tough, but it was tougher in the hospital.”
Los Alamitos’ final record may have ended 28-3 and some state champions from places like Florida and Texas may have better records, but it’s No. 1 national ranking case is strengthened by the facts when you see that yes indeed all three losses (the other two were to La Habra and Mission Viejo) were later avenged. And beating the No. 1 team at the end also is hard to ignore.
“This is just the greatest feeling,” Denhart said. “Since the school year started, we’ve been working for this.”
Poly (Riverside) 0
There sure are a lot of big-time freshman pitchers in Ventura County this year and yet another one of them, Eryka Gonzales, led the Scorpions to their third CIFSS title and second in the last six years.
Gonzales shut down the Bears in a matchup of teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state in Division II by allowing just two hits. She also struck out 10 and retired 20 of the last 21 batters she faced.
And what does it feel like to be a freshman and do something like that in a major section final?
“Pretty crazy,” she said. “I can tell you last night I was a little nervous, but not as much today. I knew we’d pull it out and get the win.”
Those other two freshmen in the county putting up eye-opening stats and getting the attention of major colleges have been Alicia Estrada from Rio Mesa of Oxnard and Jessie Fontes from Rio Mesa of Oxnard.
Camarillo (27-3) took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run single by junior Lauren Cowans. The Scorpions had chances to create a lot more of a lead, but left the bases loaded twice and also had another inning that ended with two runners on. They finally got a third run on an RBI single in the fifth by Sarah Urrea and added the fourth run in the seventh on an RBI single by Daley McGhee.
The only player from Riverside Poly (28-7) to get on base against Gonzales after the first inning was sophomore Megan Delgadillo with a single in the sixth inning.
“We graduated two key players last year and we had no returning varsity pitchers,” said Camarillo head coach Nichole Pinedo, who won her first section title although the school won one in 2011. “We knew we had two freshmen coming in and we had to see what they could do.”
One of them obviously did very well.
Notes: In other CIFSS title games played Saturday at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine, Murrieta Mesa (Murrieta) topped Hart (Newhall) 3-1 in eight innings on a walk-off homer by Zoey Clark in the D3 final and St. Anthony (Long Beach) defeated Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth) 3-2 in the D5 championship. Look for more about those teams and players from those teams in future ranking posts. Thanks also to associate editor Harold Abend for contribution.