IRVINE — Bellarmine-Jefferson High softball player Monique Landini had felt the sting of losing two straight CIF Southern championship games. She wasn’t going to endure a third.
The previous two years, the Guards advanced to the championship contest in Division VII, only to walk off the field at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine heartbroken after suffering one-run losses both years.
Saturday brought new hope for Bell-Jeff, which was trying to break its losing string in another division — VI. Landini did her share to make that happen. The senior shortstop belted a pair of home runs and the Guards used a big five-run fifth inning to earn an 8-4 victory against Mary Star of the Sea.
Bell-Jeff (22-10) did it with hitting, which included three home runs, and with its defense, as it turned a rare triple play.
“This just feels amazing. I can’t believe we won it,” said Landini, who is headed to St. Johns. “We wanted to win this so bad and we were finally able to get it done.”
A leader of the Guards, Landini has been a four-year starter in the program.
“Really, we wanted to win this title for Monique,” Bell-Jeff sophomore first baseman Sofia Palacios. “She means a lot to all of us and this is something we wanted to get for her.”
The Guards pounded out 10 hits in the contest and turned the triple play in the fifth inning against the Stars (20-9).
“I think after losing those two years, this was finally our year,” Bell-Jeff Coach Florencio Galindo. “This might not be the best hitting team we’ve had at a championship game, but they really hit the ball today.”
After having limited results against Mary Star starting pitcher Marina Vitalich through the first four innings, the Guards clobbered the ball in the fifth. Alexis Lopez hit an infield single and the Guards had two runners on when Tiffany Galindo reached base on a fielder’s choice. Landini followed, powering a ball to center field for a three-run home run. The next batter, Bell-Jeff junior pitcher Mia Acosta, came through with a solo homer to right-center.
The Guards added to their lead in the fifth, a frame in which they brought nine players to the plate. Cristina Colon doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly to right field by Samantha Casarez.
“We know we would start hitting, it just took a little time,” Acosta said. “I was nervous in my first at-bat, but then I was really calm when I hit the homer.”
In the circle, Acosta hit a rough spot right off the bat when she walked Vitalich with one out in the first inning. Vitalich took second on a balk and scored on a comebacker by Amber Nunez.
After struggling against Vitalich in the first inning, the Guards started making contact in the second. Cristina Colon collected Bell-Jeff’s first hit when she led off with a single through the left side. The Stars then committed a throwing error on what looked like a possible double play ball hit by Palacios. The Guards then loaded the bases when Priscilla Panizo was hit by a pitch in the helmet. However, Vitalich buckled down and ended the threat — and the inning — by inducing a strikeout and a groundout to second.
The Guards wouldn’t go quietly in the third, however, as a big hit tied the score at 1. Landini went 1-1 in the count and then powered a shot over the fence in center field for a solo home run.
The run was a big boost for the Guards against Vitalish, who had been almost unhittable in her last two starts, earning shutout wins in quarterfinal and semifinal games.
Mary Star threatened in the second inning, getting a runner to second base, and in a third, advancing a runner to third. But in both innings Acosta was able to work her way out of the jams and keep the Stars in check. In the second, Mary Star led off the inning with two singles.
Bell-Jeff also got a runner into scoring position in the fourth when Samantha Casarez legged out a double down the left-field line with one out. But the Guards couldn’t break the deadlock after Vitalich recorded a strikeout and then handled an easy comebacker to get out of the inning.
Acosta appeared to find a groove in the fourth inning, as she retired the first two Stars batters in order. However, with two outs, Mary Star No. 9 batter Christina Padilla doubled to the fence in left field. But again, Acosta got out of the jam with no damage done when she got Rikki Legaspi-Veldez to pop out to first.
After the Guards jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the fifth, Mary Star continued to battle, pushing across two runs in the sixth inning to cut the deficit to 6-3.
But Bell-Jeff answered back, responding with two runs in the top of the seventh. The key hit in the frame was a two-run double by Priscilla Panizo.
The Stars then made it interesting by scoring a run in the bottom of the seventh. The Stars loaded the bases, but could account for just the one run.
The Guards won the school’s first CIF championship in four years since the girls’ basketball team captured a title in 2009. A win in the title game was also only the school’s third in any sport since Bell-Jeff was founded 69 years ago. The girls’ basketball program also won a crown in 1997.