Since advancing to their first CIF Southern Section championship game last season, players from the Bellarmine-Jefferson High softball team have made it a goal to return to the title contest this year.
The Guards have been truly dominating in three postseason games thus far, and they are one victory away from achieving their goal.
To qualify for its second consecutive Division VII championship, however, Bell-Jeff must win its semifinal game against a tough Rolling Hills Prep team. The game will take place at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday at the San Pedro Softball Complex.
Bell-Jeff (22-5-2) has a history with Rolling Hills Prep. In a 2011 semifinal, Bell-Jeff defeated the Huskies, 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.
"I figured we would probably have to play them," first-year Bell-Jeff Coach Florencio Galindo said about Rolling Hills Prep (15-1). "They are a good team and they will probably be thinking about how we beat them last year. But we are confident that we will be able to get the win."
Guards sophomore center fielder Jaylen Watson said the team is looking forward to the semifinal matchup.
"We're just so excited," she said. "We know there is going to be tough competition from now on, but I think we can pull through. I have a lot of confidence in this team.
"After we lost in the final last year it was bad, but we all said that we have to get it done the next year."
Said sophomore catcher Sofia Palacios: "Even with the new coaches this season, we made it our goal to get back to the championship this season. I really think we have a good chance at doing that."
The No. 2 Guards — the Santa Cruz League champion — have been able to advance to the semifinals in relatively easy fashion. Bell-Jeff earned a spot in the final four with a 6-0 victory Thursday against Bloomington Christian at Gross Park. The Guards opened the playoffs with an 18-0 win against Riverside California School of the Deaf and defeated Animo Leadership, 16-0, in the second round.
In three playoff wins, second-seeded Bell-Jeff has outscored its opponents, 40-0. The team has benefited from solid pitching from sophomore Mia Acosta and timely hitting from a group of players.
"Not only is she a good pitcher, but she can hit, as well," Galindo said of Acosta, who is batting .479. "She does it all. You can't ask for more."
Palacios leads the Guards in hitting, as she had a .598 average heading into Thursday's game. Sophomore Christina Colon is batting .525 for a team that has no seniors and just two juniors.
No. 3 Rolling Hills Prep — the Costal League champion — had rolled through the playoffs before Thursday's game. The Huskies defeated Environmental Center, 23-0, in the first round and beat Hamilton, 18-0.
The Huskies possess a solid pitcher in junior Sierra Gabriel. The team also boasts accomplished hitters in juniors Jessica Pasco and Catalina Taylor and seniors Katelyn Marquez and Nicole Encisco.
The winner of the game will earn a spot in the championship contest, which will take place either June 1 or 2 at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine, against either top-seeded Pomona Catholic or Mesa Grande-Archer. In the 2011 title game, Bell-Jeff was defeated by Pomona Catholic, 7-6. It was the first championship appearance by the Guards in program history.