The raucous scene was entering its eighth hour of nonstop merriment. Twenty Camarillo High softball players screaming, singing, cheering and carrying on like lottery winners on a sugar rush.
The Scorpions had just defeated Highland, 4-0, behind Cindy Ball's no-hitter in a Southern Section Division I quarterfinal playoff game and were enjoying every minute of their two-hour bus ride back home.
Little by little, however, the laughter and singing dissolved into tears.
It started with sophomore Erika Francis, who tried to hide behind her dark sunglasses.
Coach Miki Mangan quickly went to Francis' side to offer a hug and a few words of consolation.
The fun that erupted hours earlier when the team boarded its bus for Palmdale had given way to sadness, which was proving contagious. Soon Mangan was crying, then players Nikki Sutton and Jessica Mendoza, then everyone.
Their tears were for Francis, a sophomore catcher who learned last month that she has multiple sclerosis and probably will never be able to play softball again. She still supports her teammates at practices and games, but that doesn't lessen the Scorpions' frustration and pain.
"You can't say anything, you can't do anything," Mangan said. "And you can't fix it."
Camarillo has played inspired softball in Francis' honor, riding a string of success for the past four weeks.
"They were definitely playing on emotion," Highland Coach Glenda Potts said. "They executed everything perfectly. They are going to win the final, I just know it."
The Scorpions (21-5) will face top-seeded Mater Dei (28-3), the nation's top-ranked team by USA Today, in a semifinal at 3:15 p.m. today at Santa Ana Foothill High.
Francis' diagnosis was the worst of several setbacks for Camarillo this season.
Sutton, an outfielder, has not played in the field since injuring her shoulder in the preseason.
Six weeks into the season, after Sutton had found a starting position as a designated player, star shortstop Mendoza injured the rotator cuff in her right shoulder.
A week later, Mendoza's sister, Alana, who took over at shortstop, suffered a broken nose on a bad-hop grounder before a game. She missed several games and underwent plastic surgery.
Francis' diagnosis came a week later, leading to a hospital stay.
"Everything seemed to happen at once," Jessica Mendoza said.
Mangan was forced to shuffle the lineup several times. In a three-week period in which three starters were sidelined, Camarillo lost three of five Marmonte League games to Royal, Thousand Oaks and Agoura.
"We had a couple of hard losses," Jessica Mendoza said. "But I think after those games, people started stepping up in other positions. And it helped the team solidify."
Camarillo has used three different shortstops, three second basemen and three catchers.
"And all the girls have played in the outfield," Mangan said. "Every single one of them have had to play somewhere else apart from their [regular] position."
To stay in the lineup, players understood they had to deliver on offense.
"They know if they're not hitting and they're not swinging, they're not playing," Mangan said.
Considering all the disruptions, Mangan was surprised the way the players supported one another.
"They all stick together and pull each other up," Mangan said. "The best thing about it is all of them--even if they're not playing--have the best attitudes."
Ball, a senior right-hander who has allowed only one hit in two playoff games, credits the team's unity for its success.
"The team is like sisters, but not sisters who fight," Ball said. "We're like the Brady Bunch, you can say. This team bonds really well."
Mangan, who performed an impromptu dance after Ball's no-hitter, has provided the glue.
"[Mangan] deserves a big high-five," Potts said. "With all the trials and tribulations they've been through and the way they are playing . . . she's just done a great job with that team."
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Southern Section semifinals (all games at 3:15 p.m.)
Div. I: Camarillo vs. Mater Dei at Santa Ana Foothill HS
Div. II: Jurupa Valley vs. Quartz Hill at Lancaster City Park
Div. IV: Harvard-Westlake vs. Corona Santiago at Norco High
Chaminade vs. Rosary at Valley College
Div. V: Paraclete vs. Orange Lutheran at Concordia University (Irvine), 1:30 p.m.
Div. VI: Cornerstone Chr. vs. So. Cal. Chr. at Hart Park field No. 3 (Orange)