GROSS PARK — It was relatively easy for the Bellarmine-Jefferson High softball team to score runs in bunches in its opening two games of the CIF Southern Section Division VII playoffs. In fact, the Guards crossed the plate 34 times and held their opponents scoreless in notching two shutout victories.
However, through the first three innings of Thursday's quarterfinal game against Bloomington Christian, Bell-Jeff could account for only a single run, as it clung to the slim advantage.
Following a slow start, the team's bats finally came alive, as the Guards pushed across two more runs in the fourth inning and three in the sixth to secure a 6-0 victory at Gross Park.
The win propels Bell-Jeff (22-5-2) into the division semifinals for the second straight season. The Guards will take host Rolling Hills Prep at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday. Rolling Hills Prep defeated University Prep, 23-15, in its quarterfinal Thursday.
In a 2011 semifinal, Bell-Jeff defeated Rolling Hills Prep, 5-4, in a dramatic come-from-behind win in the seventh inning. It paved the way for the program's first appearance in a CIF championship game.
"Since we got to the championship game last year, it has been our goal to make it back this year," Bell-Jeff sophomore center fielder Jaylen Watson said. "We really think we can do it."
In Thursday's win against the Ravens (20-9) — the runner-up in the Victory League — the Guards received an outstanding performance from sophomore pitcher Mia Acosta. Not only was Acosta solid in the circle, but she also went three for three at the plate.
The starting pitcher began the game by surrendering a hit in each of the first three innings. Luckily for Acosta, she didn't give up anything else in the first three frames, even benefiting from a defense that turned a double play in the first. Bloomington Christian moved a runner into scoring position in the second inning with two out when Tyler Hernandez reached on a fielder's choice and stole second. However, Acosta struck out Danielle Stousy-Henderson to end the threat.
"I have a lot of confidence in my team," Acosta said. "I know they've got my back and they will help me out."
Acosta went from effective to dominating over the course of the remainder of the contest. From the strikeout to end the third inning until the first out in the sixth, Acosta out struck out six of the eight batters she faced. In addition, she didn't allow a baserunner through the final four innings. She ended up with a three-hitter, striking out eight and not surrendering a walk.
The sophomore was efficient in the circle all game, not throwing more than 14 pitches in a single inning and keeping her count at 10 or under in three frames.
"Mia is so calm and collected out there, even more collected than me," said first-year Bell-Jeff Coach Florencio Galindo, whose team captured the Santa Cruz League title. "She is just so poised and she has incredible composure on the mound. She also never calls off a pitch off and she always stays with the game plan. She's just incredible and we're just so happy to have her out there."
On offense, Acosta accounted for Bell-Jeff's first run in the bottom of the first inning. With two out, she hit the first pitch she saw and powered a tailing shot to right field. The Bloomington Christian outfielder misplayed the ball, as the offering skipped past her. Acosta continued to motor round the bases and looked like she would end up with a triple. However, a throwing error into the infield allowed Acosta to scurry home.
The Guards maintained the 1-0 lead until the fourth inning. Acosta led off the inning with a base hit up the middle and was replaced by courtesy runner Jessica Pereyra. The next batter, Sofia Palacios, hit a shot to deep right-center field for an inside-the-park home run and a 3-0 lead.
It was Acosta again who began a rally in the sixth inning that saw Bell-Jeff plate three runs. She led off with a double down the right-field line and that was followed by a walk from Palacios. Watson then cleared the bases with a two-run triple over the left-fielder's head. Watson scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Samantha Casarez.
Palacios said the team wasn't worried when it couldn't get its offense rolling early.
"We just came out and we were trying our best, but we just couldn't get our bats going," Palacios said. "But we knew that we were going to come through, we just had to be patient."
Watson was two for three with a run scored and two runs batted in, Acosta was three for three with a run scored and Palacios was two for three with two runs scored and two RBI.