IRVINE — Falling behind by three runs, the Bellarmine-Jefferson High softball team was asked to fight its way back in its CIF Southern Section championship game Friday against Pomona Catholic.
The Guards responded.
However, finding themselves down a second time by a three-run deficit, this time heading into the final inning, the Bell-Jeff coaches asked their players to muster another comeback attempt in the Division VII game.
No. 2 Bell-Jeff put forth a valiant effort, pushing across two runs in the seventh inning and putting the potential tying run on second base. But the No. 1 Pacers were able to weather the challenge, sending the Guards down to a 7-6 defeat at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.
It was the first time Bell-Jeff has advanced to a CIF title contest after not getting past the second round of the postseason prior to this season.
It was also the first time in 36 years that a team in the city was able to make it to a championship. Burbank High won a 3-A crown in 1975, and that serves as the area's lone CIF softball title.
"It couldn't have been better scripted for us in that seventh inning to win the game," Bell-Jeff Coach John Castaneda said. "It was there for us to win. But it all comes down to execution. We had the opportunity, but we didn't cash in on it."
Castaneda said before the game that he had seen footage of Pomona Catholic starting pitcher Amanda Padilla, and the junior tended to tire late in games. And that's just what happened. Padilla breezed through the first four innings, allowing just one base runner, surrendering no hits and striking out eight in a row.
"The game plan we had, in my opinion, worked pretty close to perfection," Castaneda said. "We knew that we were going to have to outlast their pitcher, and we would have a chance to get to her late in the game. We knew we would have our chance."
The Pacers come into the title game on a 14-game winning streak, with all of those victories coming by way of shutout. During the streak, Pomona Catholic outscored its opponents a whopping, 234-0 — including beating three playoff opponents, 81-0.
The last time the Pacers dropped a game was April 6, when they fell to West Covina, 2-1.
It was that dominance that helped the Pacers (24-5) surge back to take a 7-4 lead after six innings. But Bell-Jeff (22-6) still had some fight left in it.
Padilla got into deep trouble in the top of the seventh after getting the first batter of the frame to ground out. Number 9 hitter, Krystal Ordonez, started the rally with a walk. Leadoff hitter Maddy Gionoli followed with a single to left field and Monique Landini walked to load the bases with one out.
Pomona Catholic Coach Roger Wallace had seen enough, and he pulled Padilla and brought in Victoria Givens in relief. She was promptly greeted by Samantha Casarez, who roped a single through the left side if the infield to score Ordonez.
Cleanup hitter Jaylen Watson did her part, hitting into a fielder's choice to score Gionoli, as Casarez scampered to second. However, the Guards stranded the potential tying run, as a groundout to third ended Bell-Jeff's quest for a historic title.
"We really had a good season, and we really worked hard. We just weren't able to make it," said Landini, whose team won its second consecutive Santa Cruz League championship. "But I guess it just wasn't for us."
The Guards received two hits, including a double, and a run batted in from Cristina Colon. Gionoli was two for four with two runs scored and Casarez was two for four with an RBI.
Bell-Jeff starting pitcher Jackie Pons was able to keep the Pacers off the board through the first three innings, thanks to some help from her defense.
Pomona Catholic had runners on first and second with one out when Gionoli, at shortstop, turned a nifty 5-3 double play. In centerfield, Watson came up with a fine catch on a sinking line drive in the third to get the Guards out of the inning.
But Pomona Catholic was finally able to break through with two runs in the fourth inning on three hits.
"I kept telling the girls that the pressure in the game was not on us," Castaneda said "It was really [Pomona Catholic's] game to lose. That helped to take a little pressure off of us. Not too many people expected us to be here, and I know a lot of people expected them to make it this far."
Bell-Jeff responded in the top of the fifth, slicing the deficit in half as Sofia Palacios reached base on a fielder's choice and scored on a double to right-center field by Priscilla Panizo.
The Pacers added two runs in their half of the fifth to take a 4-1 advantage. But the Guards came roaring back to tack on three runs in the top of the sixth inning to tie the score at 4.
It was Pomona Catholic's turn to answer the call in the bottom of the sixth off Bell-Jeff reliever Amanda Maalouf. Sarah Guillen drove in a run and Givens delivered a double that scored two runs for the Pacers in the inning.
"We had a lot of confidence, and we've been battle tested all season," Castaneda said. "But we are a young team, and we made some mistakes that young teams make. We knew that [Pomona Catholic] was a good team, but we also knew that they hadn't played a team like us."
With a team that boasted seven freshmen and five seniors, Castaneda is expecting good things from the Guards next season. He is hoping that their experience Friday — as well as the trek through the playoffs — will benefit the players.
"With seven freshmen, coming this far, doing what they've done, is just a great accomplishment," he said. "They got a taste of it. This feeling of losing is a feeling that nobody likes, and it's not like any other loss. It is something that resonates and something that will drive you next year.
"Once you have gotten this far, that's all you want to do is to get back here. They are already talking about it, and gearing up for next year. These girls have a lot to be proud of, and they know that they had a great season."