The season hasn't gone according to Gary Walin's plan.
But the Thousand Oaks High softball coach isn't complaining.
Not with his Lancers (25-5) playing Whittier California (24-4) tonight at 7:30 for the Southern Section Division II title at Barber Memorial Park in Irvine.
This is the second championship-game appearance for Thousand Oaks, which lost to Cypress, 5-0, in the 1987 4-A Division final.
After enduring a regular season riddled with injuries to key players, a 5-0 thumping by Hart and two eyebrow-raising losses to Westlake, Walin was ambivalent about the Lancers' playoff chances.
"Usually I have a sense of where the team is going," Walin said. "But [after the regular season], I thought this is going to a bust-or-boom [postseason]. I thought we were either going to go a long way or we weren't going anywhere."
A healthy lineup, clutch pitching and timely hitting provided Walin with his answer.
The return of shortstop Jenny Cochran, who sustained a shoulder injury in January, has been a booster shot. Cochran, batting .353, has been the designated hitter the last eight games.
But ace Nicole Angelo deserves most of the credit for the Lancers' playoff run.
Angelo (20-4), who was hampered by shoulder and back problems most of the regular season, has been outstanding in the playoffs.
For Angelo, a four-year starter, this is her Cinderella story.
"I don't know if I'm playing [softball] in college, so this would be the perfect ending to a high school career in softball," said Angelo, who will attend the University of San Diego.
Playing for a section title was the last thing on Thousand Oaks' mind six weeks ago, when Angelo's shoulder and back pain caused her to sit out several games.
Angelo complained of shoulder pain a few games into the season. Compensating for the pain led to back problems.
Still, the Lancers managed seven consecutive Marmonte League victories on their way to a third consecutive title.
But after weeks of pitching in pain, Angelo could no longer hide the injury.
"It was unbelievable how slow she was throwing," Walin said. "I turned to [my assistant] and said, 'Is she even breaking 50 miles an hour here or what?' "
While the team was playing in a tournament in Florida in mid-April, a trainer diagnosed Angelo with a rotator-cuff problem.
Thousand Oaks lost the two games it played in Florida, 2-1 and 8-6. Angelo pitched in only the first game and began therapy on her shoulder.
With her injuries healed, the lanky right-hander is throwing like she did last season, when she struck out 222 in 213 2/3 innings and finished with a career-best 0.29 earned-run average.
Angelo has allowed 12 hits and struck out 30 in 33 playoff innings.
For Thousand Oaks, Angelo's recovery has been the difference.
"When we started the playoffs, I turned to Nicole and said, 'Nicole, we're riding you, We're riding you all the way,' " Walin said.