BURBANK — Burbank High's softball team and Coach Nicole Drabecki believe they have a legitimate shot to contend for a Pacific League championship this season.
However, as opponents have discovered for almost a decade and a half, winning a league title has to go through Crescenta Valley. The Falcons have earned that respect, having won or shared 13 of the last 14 league crowns.
The Bulldogs gave credence to their championship quest with a dramatic come-from-behind victory Thursday at McCambridge Park.
Senior second baseman Nelani Hernandez blasted a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to lift the Bulldogs to a 7-6 win against the reigning co-champion Falcons.
The loss, coupled with a 7-3 defeat by Burroughs on Wednesday puts Crescenta Valley (7-2) at 1-2 in league.
Burbank (9-1, 2-0), which trailed for much of the game, stranded seven runners and was unable to cash in on many of their opportunities against a young Falcons squad that features eight underclassmen. But the hosts were able to fight their way back and made good on a prime situation in the seventh.
With one out, Bulldogs freshman starting pitcher Caitlyn Brooks singled to left field off Crescenta Valley sophomore right-hander Chloe Fairbrother. The next batter, junior left fielder Katie Hooper, reached base on one of five errors committed in the game by the Falcons. Fairbrother worked the count to 1-2 on Hernandez, who took the next offering and planted it firmly in the trees beyond the left-field fence.
"I was just trying to protect because I had two strikes on me," said Hernandez, a four-year varsity player. "I just thought if the next pitch was a strike I was going to swing at it. I just didn't want to strike out."
The home run capped a productive day for Hernandez, who went three for three with a double, three runs scored and four runs batted in.
The loss also overshadowed a solid performance from Crescenta Valley sophomore center fielder Hannah Cookson, who hounded the Bulldogs in the field as well as at the plate. Along with going four for four with a double, a triple and four RBI, she also threw a runner out at home plate and made five putouts, two on running grabs.
"With as young of a team as we have, if you would have taken an honest poll of the coaches in our league, I don't think they would have thought we had a chance against the talent we faced the last two games," Crescenta Valley interim coach Mark Sanford said. "But there my girls are hacking away and not giving up. ...I'm very proud of them."
After Burbank jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning on a triple by junior shortstop Laina Do that scored Hernandez, the Falcons responded with an offensive burst in the top of the second.
With Brooks struggling in the circle, the Falcons pushed across five runs, three coming on a bases-clearing triple to the left-center field fence by Cookson. Hailey Cookson, Jessica Morena, Taylor Hill, Whitney Craig and Fairbrother all had singles in the inning.
After Burbank tacked on another run in the third inning to cut the deficit to 5-2, the Falcons plated a run of their own in the fourth to up their lead to four.
The Bulldogs made things interesting by scoring two runs in the fifth on no hits, taking advantage of two Crescenta Valley errors to make it 6-4.
After the Hernandez home run, Crescenta Valley had a prime opportunity to score some runs in the seventh. The leadoff batter, Hannah Cookson, singled to left field. The next hitter, Morena, smacked a single up the middle to put runners at first and second with no outs. Tiffany Brisco then came to the plate and hit a sinking liner to center field. Outfielder Ashley Russo dove for the ball and came up with the out. She then fired the ball to second base to double off Cookson. After a base hit by Hill, Brooks got Craig out on a grounder to end the threat.
"The majority of girls you see making the big plays or little rough plays are mostly freshmen and sophomores," Sanford said. "They are playing against the cream of the league here and they are more than holding their own. That bodes well for us and our future."
Crescenta Valley finished second in league to Burroughs in 2010 and that marks the only year it didn't claim a Pacific League championship since 1998. Since no team has won a league title during that span with more than one loss, the Falcons have an uphill battle to win the crown this season.
Drabecki, who notched only her second win against Crescenta Valley in five seasons with Burbank, is not about to count the Falcons out, though.
"CV is a great program and they have great athletes," she said. "I think they can fight for a Pacific League championship. It's just how you play on any given day. Thank God we were able to win the game today."