Monique Landini paced around the softball diamond clutching her right hand, wishing the pain would go away.
Landini, a senior shortstop and four-year starter for Bellarmine-Jefferson High, suffered an injury to the ring finger of her throwing hand Tuesday in a CIF Southern Section Division VI semifinal game against host Santa Paula at Harding Park. Landini was taking infield practice in between innings and looking in another direction when a teammate rifled a ball her way. The ball struck her hard in the hand.
The game was halted momentarily as Landini was being attended to by the Guards' coaches and athletic trainer, while the Bell-Jeff faithful was left to ponder Landini's fate.
"I knew she wasn't coming out," Bell-Jeff Coach Florencio Galindo said. "She's as tough as they come. I knew if there was a way she could play she was going to be in there."
A day after the injury, Landini was still dealing with a painful finger that was swollen and bruised.
"At the time it hurt really bad," Landini said at practice Wednesday. "But although it was hurting, I didn't want to leave the game. I wanted to stay in there for my team."
In spite of the injury, Landini, who is headed to St. John's, was two for four with two stolen bases and two runs scored in a 5-1 victory.
It is that grit, along with an unrelenting work ethic, a desire to succeed and a wealth of talent that has made Landini a valuable member of the Guards team the last four years. She has helped elevate the Bell-Jeff program to a CIF Southern Section title contender and a force in the Santa Fe League. In addition, Landini provides leadership for a team that has just two seniors, as well as experience being a four-year starter.
Landini will bring all of her skills to the table when the Guards play their most important game of the season. Bell-Jeff has earned a spot in its third consecutive CIF championship game, and will take on Mary Star of the Sea at 10 a.m. Saturday at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine in the Division VI title game.
The Guards will be trying to break a string of two consecutive losses in championship games, having been beaten by Pomona Catholic by one-run scores in the previous two Division VII contests.
Having suffered through those two losses, Landini said it's time for the Guards to finally claim their title.
"Having gone through it the last two years, we really want to win it this third time," she said. "All of us are really focused on making that happen and hopefully we will."
For four years, Landini has been a steady force for the Guards. She served notice her freshman season, when she batted .593, that she had the tools to become one of the most successful players in program history. In these four years, the Guards have captured four consecutive Santa Cruz League championships and advanced to a CIF title game three times.
"That was one of my goals when I came in as a freshman, to win four league championships," said Landini, who is hitting close to .450 this season for the Guards. "My other goal was to win a CIF championship.
"The program has also grown a lot in the four years. My freshman year we didn't even have a coach in the beginning and we were wondering if there was even going to be a team. And now the program has grown so much."
Along with being a solid hitter, Landini has emerged as the anchor on defense for the Bell-Jeff infield. In addition, her speed makes here a threat to steal any time she gets on base.
"When you talk about Bell-Jeff softball, you talk about Monique Landini," Galindo said. "She has been here since the beginning of the success of this program and she is still here now. Being a senior and playing in as many games as she has, she's seen it all and she knows what to expect. And she's able to tell that to some of the younger girls.
"She has meant a lot to this program over the years and she's done it the right way."
Bell-Jeff junior pitcher Mia Acosta said she is more at ease in the circle knowing she has a player the caliber of Landini behind her.
"Mo is the kind of player you want on your infield," Acosta said. "If I make a mistake she is right there to help me out and get the out. I have so much confidence in her. Sometimes when a ball is hit to her I don't even have to look over there because I know she's got it."
Playing alongside Landini is junior second baseman Tiffany Galindo. Galindo said she has learned a lot playing next to Landini.
"I definitely look up to her and I've learned a lot from her," Tiffany Galindo said. "I see her make plays some times and I can't believe anybody could make a play like that."
The Guards will definitely look to Landini to again come up big when they take to the field Saturday. And even if her finger is still hurting, she'll be there.
"There's no way I would miss this game, no way," she said.