BURBANK — The Bellarmine-Jefferson High softball team had been there before.
In each of the three previous seasons, the Guards led in their CIF Southern Section semifinal game in the seventh inning with their opponent facing its final at-bats. In all three instances, Bell-Jeff closed things out and punched its ticket to the championship contest.
A year ago, that title appearance led to a Division VI championship, the first in program history.
The No. 1-seeded Guards faced a similar situation Tuesday in a Division VI semifinal against No. 3 Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary at Gross Park. Bell-Jeff held a one-run lead leading into the seventh inning and was three outs away from securing its fourth straight trip to the finals.
However, this time the Guards faltered. Bell-Jeff gave up the tying run in the seventh inning and the Cardinals scored two more in the ninth and the Guards couldn't recover, falling at home, 5-3.
"It was a great game to be a part of, it's just tough that we had to lose it," Bell-Jeff Coach Francisco Galindo said. "We battled all the way and we had our opportunities, but we just couldn't get it done.
"To me, that was the championship game right there. I thought that whoever wins this game is going to win the championship for sure."
Cantwell Sacred Heart (21-7) earned a spot in the championship game that will be played Friday or Saturday at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine. The Cardinals will take on St. Bonaventure, which defeated Pomona Catholic, 5-4, in its semifinal Tuesday. It is Cantwell Sacred Heart's first appearance in a title game since 2006.
Tuesday's game was a rematch of the 2013 quarterfinal when Bell-Jeff (16-5-2) defeated the Cardinals, 3-1, also at Gross Park.
"This was a little bit of a revenge game after what happened last year when they beat us," Cantwell Sacred Heart Coach Ralph Martin Del Campo said. "I didn't like for them to have that mindset because this is a new year and we were starting fresh, but that's what they were thinking about."
While Bell-Jeff came into the game after surviving with a 1-0 win Saturday in the quarterfinals against St. Monica, the Cardinals entered the contest on a roll. Cantwell Sacred Heart had outscored its opponents, 32-1, in its first three playoff contests.
But it was the Guards who looked in control heading into the top of the seventh inning with a 3-2 lead. However, the first batter of the inning for Cantwell Sacred Heart, Julia Guzman, drove an offering from starting pitcher Mia Acosta into left field that went over the fielder's head and she legged it out for an inside-the-park home run that tied the score at 3.
"We had that lead in that seventh inning and we just couldn't hold on to it," Galindo said. "This game really could have gone either way. They capitalized on their opportunities and we didn't. They made the plays when they had to."
The Guards put themselves in a good position in the bottom of the seventh inning when Clarissa Cabrera led off the frame with a walk. However, No. 1 hitter Tiffany Galindo lined a shot to the shortstop who threw to first to double off Cabrera for a double play. Cardinals starter Garcia then induced a groundout to the second baseman to end the inning.
The scored stayed knotted until the top of the ninth. Cardinal Amanda Garcia tripled to the right-center field gap with one out. Acosta then walked Guzman and Anissa Loera to load the bases. Cierra Amarillas then lifted a bloop single into shallow right field that scored two runs.
"This hurts, but we played a helluva game," said Acosta, who was two for four at the plate. "But I would rather lose to a team that played like that than another team that really maybe didn't play well.
"But we were able to battle back to even get back into the game and I give my team a lot of credit for that."
Acosta, who gave up six hits, walked three and struck out six, breezed along through the first four innings, yielding just one hit and no runs. Similarly, Garcia also had little trouble through four, giving up no runs and just one hit.
However, Cantwell Sacred Heart got to Acosta in the fifth inning, striking for two runs on an inside-the-park home run to right-center field by Alexis Pintado.
Undaunted, the Guards battled back. Tiffany Galindo led off the sixth inning with an infield single and Sam Casarez followed with a walk. Acosta then hit into a fielder's choice, which moved the runners to second and third. Cristina Colon loaded the bases with a walk and when Sofia Palacios followed with a walk and Guards were finally on the board. Bell-Jeff took the lead, 3-2, one batter later after Priscilla Panizo doubled to right field to plate two runs.
"They played well," Acosta said of the Cardinals. "They did what they had to do to win."
Follow Jeff Tully on Twitter: @jefftsports.