Huskies prevailed over previously unbeaten East Nicolaus, 1-0, on Thursday in a showdown between state’s top two small school squads. Both teams are now headed into different CIF section playoffs in “small school” divisions, but competitive equity seeding for the CIF NorCal regional playoffs creates all sorts of possibilities for division placement.
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Just a few years ago, the small school softball showdown between Sutter and East Nicolaus that was played Thursday at Sutter with the Sutter Buttes looming nearby would have had a different set of circumstances surrounding it.
The two schools were in different divisions of the CIF Northern Section. Sutter’s 1-0 win on Thursday would have been followed by a likely series of blowouts as team would have gone on to win section titles, and then the season would be over.
In 2023, however, a lot has changed. Sutter is now in its first school year as a member of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section, while East Nicolaus is still in the Northern Section. Both schools have sought out stronger non-league schedules, the CIF now has Northern California regional playoffs after the section playoffs and there’s competitive equity seeding, which makes it possible for teams like Sutter and East Nicolaus to play at the highest levels.
One thing’s for sure after witnessing Sutter’s win on Thursday is that the two starting pitchers — Olivia Bauer of the Huskies and Meika Lauppe of the Spartans — are capable of shutting down any of the other top lineups in Northern California regardless of school size or program strength.
Both pitchers settled in and got going in the later innings, but both were vulnerable early on.
In the top the second inning, East Nicolaus (26-1-1) had runners on first and second with one out when Aaliyah Tinoco had a hard-hit ball headed down the right field line. Unfortunately for her, it was caught by Sutter’s first baseman, who then stepped on the bag for a double play.
In the bottom of the second, Sutter (25-1) scored what proved to be the only run of the game. After a one-out single by Karissa Williams, teammate Morgan Heggstrom ripped a double into the right-center field gap. Williams was called out on a close play at the plate, but the very next batter, Makayla Schamanski, had a solid RBI single that scored Heggstrom.
That was the first earned run of the season given up by Lauppe, a senior who has signed with Arizona State. She was getting consistent ground balls with a couple of strikeouts in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings.
Bauer also gave up leadoff singles in the third and fourth innings, but the Spartans couldn’t get the big hit they needed. Bauer, a junior who keeps batters off-balance by mixing her speeds effectively, set down East Nicolaus in order in the fifth and sixth innings and struck out seven for the game.
The game ended with some controversy. Down to their last out, the Spartans stayed alive on an infield single by Audrey Gillespie. Tinoco then came up and had a single. Instead of two runners on with another batter coming up, however, it looked like the Spartans were looking to induce a throwing error as Gillespie was almost caught off third base. Tinoco then tried to reach second base, but was called out. Gillespie came home on that throw, but the out was determined to have been before the run scored.
East Nicolaus head coach Neil Stinson went out to question the call at second as Sutter’s players celebrated their win.
“We just saw it differently as a tag at second base, but that’s how it goes sometimes,” Stinson said.
“It was a matchup like we expected,” Stinson also said. “Both teams are evenly matched, both play solid defense. It was just a throwback pitcher’s duel and both teams had their opportunities.”
Bauer thought it helped her and the Huskies that the highly anticipated matchup, which brought together the state’s top two small school teams and also No. 18 and No. 19 overall in the State TOP 25 rankings, had been moved from the previous Thursday due to wet weather and field conditions.
“It gave us more time to prepare,” she said. “This game is to help us with all of the intensity we’re going to face at the next level.”
It also helped Sutter that it had been in an earlier 1-0 game this season in its only loss of the season so far, which was to CIF Southern Section D1 highly ranked team Huntington Beach. So if the Huskies were to go on to win in their CIF Sac-Joaquin Section division (which will be D5), how would Bauer feel about playing in the very top NorCal bracket?
“Most definitely that would be okay,” she said.
Even if that means in the same division as St. Francis of Mountain View (which was No. 1 in the state last year and may be No. 1 in the state next week) or Archbishop Mitty of San Jose (a well known state powerhouse)?
“Yes, yes to both,” Bauer said.
Sutter head coach Stefanie Danna wasn’t so sure about D1 and knows that she and the school probably could make a case about not being in the very top division of the NorCal playoffs to Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Mike Garrison, who then could probably push the CIF for not putting up the Huskies that high as well.
“As the postseason starts, I just like to take it one day at a time,” Danna said. “There’s going to be good competition no matter what.”
Stinson also knows that if his team had won on Thursday that the same questions would be asked.
“In our mind-set, what division we may be in (for the NorCal playoffs) is something not in our control,” he said. “In a perfect world, we’d like to be playing other small schools, but we understand the new ways of doing things, too.”
The loss for East Nicolaus also means that every team that was in the most recent State TOP 25 rankings and the next 20 or so that were on the bubble all have at least one loss. Earlier this week, state No. 1 Clovis North of Fresno had its first loss to end its regular season against league rival Central of Fresno (a team the Broncos had beaten earlier this season).