When the Huntington Beach High softball team played in its first CIF Southern Section Division 1 quarterfinal last season, the Oilers gave eventual champion Norco everything it could handle.
In many ways, the Oilers felt that an overturned obstruction call in the ninth inning cost them that game.
At the beginning of this season, Huntington Beach was hungry for another deep playoff run. The Oilers never received the clean bill of health that a contender might need, but the team believed it might have been good enough to go all the way.
A loud dugout and a deep bench that continued to step up made history for the Oilers again this year, but the season still ended in a line of tearful hugs.
Huntington Beach earned its rematch against Norco, advancing further this year than any Oilers softball team. The Cougars ended another Huntington Beach season.
Paige Smith had four hits and four runs batted in to lead the top-seeded Cougars to a 9-2 victory on Tuesday in the semifinals at Huntington Beach.
Norco (30-1) will play Temecula Great Oak (24-3-1) in the final on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Deanna Manning Stadium, which is in Bill Barber Park in Irvine. Great Oak defeated Cerritos Gahr 12-4 in the semifinals.
Smith was one of several familiar faces that returned from the extra-inning affair that Huntington Beach and Norco had in the quarterfinals last year. Oilers coach Jeff Forsberg certainly remembered her.
“The Smith girl, my god, if I was her, I’d make sure that these kids come to college with her because we can’t seem to get her out,” Forsberg said. “I think she had a career against us last year and this year.”
It appeared that the rematch was going to go down to the wire, too, but the bats came alive for the Cougars in the late innings. Smith laced a line drive out of the reach of right fielder Devyn Greer. It got behind her on a dive, driving in Ashley Anderson and Megan Forbes to give Norco a 3-2 lead in the fifth.
“I was just happy that we were back on top,” said Smith, who will be playing in the finals for the third time in her career. “We weren’t going to stop, and we knew one run wasn’t going to beat us.”
The Cougars continued to pepper right field in the sixth. Kinzie Hansen and Smith both went that direction again for run-scoring singles. Sarah Willis, who had three hits, also drove in a run in the inning, as Norco extended its lead to 6-2.
Norco scored three more runs in the seventh inning to put the game out of reach, highlighted by a two-run single from Allison Beecher.
Willis allowed two unearned runs on three hits in a complete game. She struck out nine and walked two. The University of Washington commit said that she has learned to trust her pitches and go after hitters.
“I definitely have gotten better on my strike-to-ball ratio,” Willis said. “I’m attacking people more and not giving up as many walks. I’m helping my team out on the field.”
Huntington Beach (18-9) took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second inning. Katelyn Mangrello singled and Ameryn Humble reached on a throwing error by Smith. Mikayla Carman laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over.
With two outs, Valerie Rudd hit a ball to the shortstop Kyleigh Sand. It rolled under the glove and into left field, allowing both runners to score.
Megan Ryono and Rudd each had one hit for the Oilers. Ryono is one of nine seniors set to graduate for Huntington Beach.
“It’s been great,” Ryono said. “I’ve grown up with a lot of these girls. I think coming together and making it this far and doing it two years in a row really shows how close of a group this is and how we can find a way to get together, despite all that happened this year. It’s been a great ride. We made it last as long as we possibly could have.”
For the first time all season, Forsberg was able to pencil in the same lineup for three consecutive games.
“It was more superstition than anything else, to be honest with you,” Forsberg said. “It was just kind of nice to write the same names down.
“I also think we owed it to the kids that we were putting out there to let them enjoy the moment because they got us to this spot.”
Support our sports coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.