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Surprising Fullerton Turns Up the Pressure : Prep softball: After a disappointing early season, the Indians won league title and are making an improbable run through the Division II playoffs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those who like their fairy tales with a decidedly athletic tone:

Seventeen of the 32 teams that began the Southern Section Division II softball playoffs had more victories than Fullerton High School. The Indians had a .519 won-loss percentage, which was worse than any other league champion. But Fullerton is still playing. The Indians have won three consecutive playoff games and improved to 17-13. Thirteen losses! They’re in today’s semifinal against Saugus with 13 losses? The other three teams remaining have 11 losses between them . What are they doing here, you ask? How could this happen? How far can they go? Well, it goes something like this. . . .

The pressure got to them early. Expectations were greater than the young team was ready to shoulder. “Projected Freeway League champion? Fullerton.” That’s what they read. That’s what they heard. That’s what they couldn’t live up to--the expectation.

“Early on, we put pressure on ourselves,” Coach Scott Weber said. “We weren’t playing for ourselves, we were playing for everyone else. The preseason predictions got to us.”

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Pitcher Angie Fancuberta and catcher Kiki McAulay were good enough to make Fullerton the Freeway League favorite. By the time league play began, the Indians were 6-11.

“This year we were nervous at the beginning of season,” McAulay said, “but we got better every game. We took some losses that taught us a lot--we don’t take teams lightly; we’re always in the game and we do a lot to mentally prepare ourselves.”

At the time, their team batting average was .175, their slugging average was .202, their on-base percentage was .315.

Few imagined then that Fullerton would be a game away from playing for a section title.

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“I knew we had a good team,” junior shortstop Deborah Hargrave said, “but I never thought we would do this good.”

Between the preseason and the playoffs, Fullerton had the Freeway League. The Indians won twice then lost to Sonora.

“That was the turning point for us,” said Hargrave, one of the most vocal team leaders along with McAulay. “We had a team meeting, and since then, we’ve been into every game mentally and physically.”

After their second loss--at midseason--came another defining moment. Weber put junior Jenette Guerrero in center field and left her there. It solidified the defense and, along with Annette Martinez at second base (the only senior starter), helped make the Indians strong up the middle. They haven’t lost since. They won the league title, then set out to win some respect.

Guerrero threw out the tying runner at home plate in a 2-1 victory over Covina Charter Oak, ending a rally by the defending champion. Before that, left fielder Amy Simpson threw out a runner at home in the fifth inning of Fullerton’s 12-inning, 2-0 victory over Lakewood. The defensive trend is consistent.

Their three victories have totaled 28 innings. Despite stranding 30 runners, they’re perfect in the playoffs.

“We’ve struggled a lot with (offense),” said Hargrave, the cleanup hitter who is batting .262, “but we still win because we play good defense; that’s why we go so many innings. Our defense is so into it mentally; we keep pushing our defense because we know that we’ll score eventually.”

Since the 6-11 start, Fullerton is batting .238 with a .289 slugging average and .374 on-base percentage. The figures are better than they were 13 games ago, but still won’t scare anyone. Statistically, this team is laughable, but that’s what makes it dangerous--it plays as a unit and doesn’t rely completely on any individual.

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The Indians are the underdogs of the playoffs, official representative of the .500 Club.

That means Saugus (27-2-1), the top-seeded team in the division, has the heavy burden in today’s game at Fullerton College.

“If you know you’re supposed to win, you do have a lot of pressure,” McAulay said. “We’re a young team, and we don’t like the pressure. Knowing that you beat someone you aren’t supposed to beat, you get so much confidence. I don’t know if we prefer to be an underdog, but it does seem to help.

“We always say, ‘We don’t have anything to lose.’ Charter Oak had a lot to lose--they were the defending CIF champion. Lakewood was the No. 4 team, so they had a lot to lose. The only thing we could do was play our hardest to win.

“It’s fun to shock people.”


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