A Crusader on a mission for a title

Glendale News Press

Once the lengthy practice in the late-afternoon concluded and the start of the Memorial Day three-day weekend began, Maddi Velasquez went straight to the batting cage adjacent to the Village Christian High softball field.

For about an extra 30 minutes, Velasquez took her share of swings determined to further show her testament to being a dedicated player. With each pitch tossed underhand by one of the assistant coaches, Velasquez, a La Crescenta resident, hammered the balls off the netting.

It's the work ethic displayed by Velasquez that's made her one of the elite players on the fourth-seeded Crusaders, who will face top-seeded Whittier Christian in a CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal road game at 3:15 p.m. today. The other semifinal matchup will pit second-seeded La Cañada against host South Hills.

"It's her mind set," said sixth-year Village Christian Coach Mike Delaney, whose team is seeking its first CIF championship since 2003 and first appearance in a title contest since 2004. "She's very driven because she wants to succeed.

"She wants to perform to the best of her capabilities."

Velasquez, a junior center fielder, and the Crusaders (24-5) have returned to the semifinals for the second season in a row. With strong pitching from standout Emily Seidel (21-4) and clutch hitting and defense from a collection of intelligent players, things have gone better than expected for Village Christian.

Velasquez, a three-year varsity player, has provided the Crusaders with a little bit of everything to help make them one of the top teams in the region. Entering today's contest, Velasquez is batting .391 (36 for 92) with 11 doubles and 17 runs batted in.

"We have a team that's been playing together for a long time," said Velasquez, who has hit safely in all four Village Christian postseason games while batting third. "We feel like we are on an upward scale right now and we still haven't peaked.

"I feel like we are in a good place with our pitching, offense and defense."

Behind Seidel, a junior, the Crusaders have yielded just one run in the postseason. The Crusaders, who finished 5-3 to finish third in the competitive Olympic League behind Whittier Christian and Cerritos Valley Christian, opened with a wild-card win against Godinez. The Crusaders then registered victories against Duarte, Beaumont and San Dimas.

Village Christian received a walk-off three-run home run from pinch-hitter Katie Lucas in the bottom of the seventh to earn a 3-0 win against visiting San Dimas in a quarterfinal game Thursday.

"We rely on each other to come through," said Velasquez, who has scored 19 runs and stolen 17 bases this season. "It's not just one person that does all of the work.

"For us to win, we need a collective effort."

The Crusaders have relied on Velasquez's ability to hit balls to the gap and also track down balls hit by opponents.

"For me, it's about making good contact when hitting the ball," Velasquez said. "I want to get on base so that somebody can knock me in.

"On defense, it's about getting a good jump on the ball. I have to be talking to my left fielder and right fielder. Make sure where the fence is and keep communicating."

Rebecca Gieske, a senior shortstop and captain, said Velasquez's value to Village Christian comes in a variety of ways.

"If she's not out there in center field, I don't know where we would be," said Gieske, a La Crescenta resident who is batting .327 and has a team-leading 22 stolen bases. "She's saved us quite a few times with her bat and glove.

"She can get to the ball and hit amazingly well. She's humble and she's always willing to find ways to get better."

Velasquez knows plenty about the success achieved by the Crusaders during the past decade. Her half-sister, Jackie Duree, was a member of the program's 2003 CIF championship squad before playing at Cal State Northridge.

Duree hit .321 (27 for 84) with 17 runs and 22 RBIs to help the Crusaders win the Division V crown.

"I looked up to her and she's taught me a lot about composure," Velasquez said. "She kept the same attitude in every game and I've tried to do the same thing.

"Those teams did everything very well. I think that our team and those teams are very much alike."

It will take two more victories for the Crusaders to equal the accomplishment of seven years ago.

With Velasquez on board, Village Christian doesn't plan on falling short.

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