COSTA MESA — After winning its first two games at the La Quinta Tournament, Coach Tony Qualin said his Newport Harbor High softball team had already clinched a first-place finish in its pool.
That didn't mean Qualin wanted the Sailors to play like the game was virtually meaningless.
They were nearly upset in their final pool-play game Tuesday but did just enough to win against a Newport-Mesa district foe. Sophomore Breanna Lopez scored on a wild pitch in the top of the seventh inning and the Sailors escaped against Costa Mesa, 4-3, at Costa Mesa High.
The Sailors (10-1) will play at the host Aztecs in the tournament championship game Friday. They'll likely have to play better if they want to take home the championship hardware.
"We didn't get the big hits when we needed them today," Qualin said. "We just had a lot of things go wrong. We steal a base and the runner slides by the base. A lot of things didn't work out for us today. I don't squeeze with a left-handed batter. We had two chances when I had a runner on third where I'd definitely squeeze if I'd have had a right-handed batter. It just didn't work out that way."
Neither team led by more than a run. The Sailors broke a 3-3 tie in the seventh against Costa Mesa (1-7) and starting pitcher Tamy Cerrato, a senior.
Costa Mesa Coach Nichole Maddox said she was proud of Cerrato, her No. 2 pitcher who before Tuesday hadn't pitched a complete game.
"She did really well," Maddox said. "We saw her starting to get tired a little bit, but she pushed her way through. She relied on her defense, which we always like."
Yet the inning started off as Newport Harbor sophomore Bella Secaira (four for four with one run battled in) hit a hard shot under the glove of the shortstop. Lopez's fly ball to left field was dropped, but the Mustangs recovered in time to force out Secaira at second base.
But Kendall Brennan and Hope Nokes both walked to lead the bases, and Lopez came home on a wild pitch.
She missed home plate at first, but with a few Sailors supporters frantically yelling at her, she went back to tag home before the Mustangs could react.
Lopez had also had the big hit in the top of the third, a two-out double to left that scored Hattie Marshall and Secaira and gave the Sailors a 3-2 lead. She said initially the Sailors may have underestimated the struggling Mustangs, but those thoughts were quickly erased.
"In the beginning we didn't play as hard as we should have," Lopez said. "But in the end, we pulled together and beat them, so I'm happy about that."
The Mustangs responded with their own rally in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs, senior second baseman Sami Feinstein was hit by a pitch, though the umpire initially said the ball struck the nob of her bat.
"What?" said an exasperated Feinstein, holding her obviously sore left arm.
She was awarded first base. Then she made the Sailors pay, stealing second before coming home on an RBI single from senior shortstop Alex Krohnfeldt. Krohnfeldt, a team captain, was two for three with a walk and two RBIs.
Maddox said she's been ill for about 10 days now, and her voice is nearly gone. The play of her team didn't make her feel sick, though. Sophomore Nikki Delgado doubled and Feinstein and Cerrato also had hits.
Defensively, Krohnfeldt and Feinstein made several nice plays in the infield, senior Nikki Lether caught a long fly ball to left and senior catcher Alosina Skipps threw out two runners trying to steal. She also tagged out Savannah Caviston when she tried to score on a wild pitch in the sixth.
"[Skipps] has been doing really well for us, hanging in there," Maddox said. "She's been catching Kira [Mitani] for the last three years and having to catch a new pitcher has been pretty tough on her, but she's been playing really solid."
But the Mustangs couldn't score again. They had trouble adjusting after Newport Harbor ace Hattie Marshall took the mound in the fifth. Marshall picked up the win after allowing no hits in three innings, striking out six and allowing no balls to leave the infield. Caviston had started on the mound for the Sailors.
Lauren Gandi had a double and Mandy LeGault and Caviston also collected hits for Newport Harbor.
"We've all worked so hard," said Secaira, a first-team All-Sunset League selection at catcher last year. "I know this might come out wrong, but what really matters is how we play during league. This is just getting everybody aware of what's going to happen during league. League is really extremely, extremely tough, but we've just worked so hard. I have that feeling that it's going to pay off."
Qualin, whose team plays at Ocean View today, is also looking big picture.
"I'm not happy with the way they played today, but I'm happy with the season," he said. "I'm happy with the JV being 4-0. No one could have predicted that. That might be the thing I'm the happiest about."
A La Quinta Tournament championship would rank right up there.
La Quinta Tournament
Newport Harbor 4, Costa Mesa 3
SCORE BY INNINGS
NH 102 000 1 — 4 9 1
CM 110 100 0 —3 5 2
Caviston, Marshall (5) and Secaira; Cerrato and Skipps. W – Marshall, 6-1. L – Cerrato. 2B – Gandi (NH), Lopez (NH), Delgado (CM).