In the end, the outcome came down to one undeniable truth. One tenacious and dominant Bulldog proved to be just too good for a group of game Cougars.
And so history will record that on Saturday afternoon/evening on the beautifully manicured softball field at UC San Diego, Calexico High, behind the continued pitching mastery of right-hander Kasey Cazares, shut out top-seeded Escondido 3-0 to capture the CIF Division II San Diego Section title. The championship win upped the Bulldogs’ overall record to a notable 23-8 while the Cougars ended their season by tasting defeat for only the ninth time in 35 outings.
Though the setback was difficult to digest knowing that the Cougars were just a step removed from taking home a crown, nothing can diminish the impressive run that Escondido undertook just to reach the finals. Three times Coach Cary Weiler’s crew was faced with elimination and on each occasion, it met the challenge head-on, persevered and excelled.
On May 24, the Cougars began their push for glory with a convincing 7-0 whitewash of Santana. Right-hander Victoria Cervantes was an absolute standout, not only spinning a complete game, one-hit shutout but the senior also did some serious damage with her bat, banging out two hits and driving in a pair of runs. Others who contributed to the offense were outfielder Grace Finn and Hannah Ice, each of whom produced a hit and an RBI.
Two days later, the Cougars were at it again, limiting Steele Canyon to nothing but goose eggs while coasting to a 6-0 victory at the Santee Sportsplex. Once more, it was Cervantes casting the largest shadow over the proceedings with her arm (six scoreless innings) and torrid stick (three hits, a homer, 3RBIs). In addition to the heroics of Cervantes, the lineup percolated with 12 hits while the defense was tight, flawlessly handling 29 total chances. Finn and first sacker Xzarria Simmons did some nice work with the lumber, each rapping out a brace of hits while Brynn Miller also delivered an RBI.
And yet, these games only served as mere buildups when compared to what was to happen next. In what became a long day’s journey into night, the Cougars played for a second time on the 26th and were pushed to their very limits by gritty No. 2 seed Granite Hills. But the indefatigable Cougs endured, hung tough and finally prevailed when they pushed across a run in the 14th inning for a dramatic 1-0 win. In this semifinal nail-biter, it was the accomplished and clutch Simmons who came up with the game-deciding hit.
But, in what was by then becoming almost an expected occurrence, Cervantes predictably occupied center stage. Showing good velocity and mixing in a nice assortment of off- speed pitches, the rubber-armed righty just kept rolling right along, putting up so many zeros it became almost automatic. By the time she had delivered the last of her astounding 157 pitches, Victoria had yielded just six hits and a lone walk while striking out eight. Cervantes’s brilliance was magnified by the fact that she had extended her postseason scoreless streak to a mind- numbing 27 innings. In short, this Cougar was wheeling and dealing like a female version of Clayton Kershaw.
By virtue of having won four of five postseason contests in the double- elimination format, the Cougars had advanced all the way to the championship finals, where a familiar foe that had vanquished them earlier, waited.
A week before, the Calexico Bulldogs and their thoroughly suffocating hurler Cazares (19 K’s) had eked out a 1-0, 10-inning decision that had sent the Cougars over to the loser’s bracket. It had been a wondrous and fierce pitching duel between the senior standouts Cazares and Cervantes, and if not for an error that led to an unearned run, that game had marathon written all over it.
Now the Cougars were presented with an opportunity to settle the score and exact some sweet revenge. Escondido was exactly where it wanted to be, poised to garner a title and positioned for some payback to boot. In many ways for EH, this couldn’t have been a more welcomed scenario.
Except for one thing – Cazares was about to reprise her role as an impenetrable wall, if not a force of nature. Despite having had an ingrown toenail procedure performed on Monday and forced to deal with a strained hamstring, Cazares nonetheless showed little sign of impairment. By the time her work was finished, she was still a mystery to the Cougars, going the distance while scattering just four hits and fanning six. No Esco player was able to advance beyond second base. The only Coug hitter that got the better of Cazares was senior outfielder Nicole Alvarado—who went a notable two-for-three.
With no other option, the Cougars were obliged to respectfully tip their caps to Cazares and accept a cold, hard reality – that the Bulldog righty simply had their number.
Cervantes tried to keep things close by extending her shutout streak to 29 frames but in the bottom of the third, the game’s outcome was decided. With the bases loaded, Calexico’s Massie Burgos stroked a grounder to second, with the throw coming home. In a close and tight play, it appeared as if the catcher’s foot came off the plate and as a result, the Bulldogs were staked to 1-0 lead. Burgos was given credit for an RBI single.
Given the way Cazares was doing her thing, that probably was more than enough but just in case, Nat Lopez was about to provide some key insurance. The splendid hitting junior, who owns a .397 average, turned on a Cervantes offering and laced it into left- centerfield for a pivotal two-run double that all but sealed the deal. Given three runs to play with, Cazares was as good as gold as she went on to blank the Cougars for a second consecutive outing. Clearly at her best, Cazares had held the Cougs completely at bay, yielding nary a run in 16 dominant innings.
Thus, that was how the Cougars’ season came to an end, just one step short of the promised land. But not being able to secure the top prize did nothing to minimize what a memorable year it had been. An impressive total of 26 wins had been chalked up and that number included winning streaks of seven, five and four (twice) games. And by getting to the finals, Escondido validated its reputation as a resourceful, clutch and resilient club that was more than worthy of a high seed.
There was only one thing that prevented the season from culminating with a storybook finish. One unfaltering and indomitable Bulldog was able to gain the decisive edge over a bunch of resolute Cougars.