Paraclete, Neill Lack Final Answer Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the same painful story for Paraclete High and one of the region's most respected but hard-luck softball coaches, Margaret Neill.

Again relegated to the role of bridesmaids, the Spirits lost to Orange Lutheran, 4-0, on Saturday in the Southern Section Division V championship game at Barber Memorial Park in Irvine.

Neill, 548-99 with league championships in each of her 22 seasons, fell to 0-7 in section finals and was poised for queries in the press room afterward.

"OK, who's going to ask the question?" she said.

But there were few answers, from anybody, how such a smooth-fielding team could commit a season-high six errors.

Or why a team that outscored four playoff opponents, 42-0, managed only four hits against Laura Miklos (14-5) to become her 11th consecutive shutout victim.

Or why a team poised enough to upset Division I power Valencia and go 5-0 against Golden League schools with much larger enrollments could unravel so quickly.

When did the No. 2-seeded Spirits (24-4) sense something was amiss?

"When we started having a million errors," said pitcher Sara Gonzales, who had not allowed a run in 49 innings or an earned run in 15 games before Saturday.

Those streaks ended in the third inning, when No. 4-seeded Orange Lutheran (23-8) scored three times, collecting four hits and a walk, and taking advantage of Paraclete's third error.

Gonzales (22-3), who struck out five in a seven-hitter, allowed two earned runs in the inning and was victimized by two more errors for an unearned run in the fourth, when the Lancers sealed their first section title in their second appearance.

Tiffany Forrest and Catherine Buttrey doubled for Paraclete, but the Spirits never mounted a threat against Miklos, a senior right-hander who struck out four, and a flawless defense.

"Maybe I should just coach them to this game, then pick somebody off the street for the final," Neill joked. "It's frustrating, but I still contend that I'm blessed, that most people don't even get to this game once and we've been here seven times."

Making their first appearance in the final since 1997, the Spirits looked like first-timers, nerves and all. They denied being nervous, but that's the way the Lancers saw it.

"Going into the game, I thought that if we came out pumped, we could rattle them and that's exactly what we did," said first baseman Nicole Sandberg, who drove in Orange Lutheran's first and fourth runs.

What rattled Paraclete most was its inability to claim the prize for Neill.

"This is probably the hardest part of losing," shortstop Jackie Kolesar said. "We wanted it so bad for Miss Neill."

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