LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Faced with one of its most important and arduous Prep League tests and having to do so — at least at the start — with standout pitcher Denise van der Goot in a classroom literally taking an exam, Flintridge Prep's softball team entered its matchup with Rio Hondo Prep a bit apprehensive.
"We were definitely apprehensive," said Rebels senior third baseman Abbey Deckop. "Just not seeing her warming up made us nervous."
But after one very momentous first inning of offense, the Rebels were at ease and stayed as such, with five first-inning runs setting the tone for an impressive 9-2 win over the Kares on Tuesday evening at Flintridge Prep.
"It's a great win for us," said Rebels Coach Julie Jaime, whose Rebels improved to 11-3 overall and 8-1 in league, maintaining first place atop the standings, while putting Rio Hondo at 11-5, 5-3. "This is a big, big game."
Prep took no time in getting started, as Kelly Wang drew a leadoff walk and scored four pitches later on an Alina Okamoto double to center field. It began a blitzkrieg of five runs — three of them unearned thanks to a Rio Hondo dropped popup — in a stanza that also saw four Rebels hits, a walk and two Prep stolen bases in addition to a wild pitch and a passed ball.
"[It was] obviously great breathing room for us," said Jaime, who got a combined 11 hits and three walks from eight players. "We put base hits together, with some timely hitting with runners in scoring position."
Following Okamoto's double, she scored on a wild pitch before Deckop scored Ashley Kim on a chopper up the middle, making it 3-0.
Okamoto finished with a pair of hits, two runs and a run batted in, Deckop had three hits, three RBI and a run and Kim also had a pair of hits to go with three runs.
"I think it was really nice just having everybody be confident out there," Okamoto said. "Everyone executed today."
Deckop later scored on a sacrifice fly by Rachel Simon an at-bat prior to Maya Okamoto plating Chelsea Johnson on a groundout for the final run of the first-inning barrage.
While the first-inning onslaught was key, so too was the start of Caitlin Gillman, who spun two shutout innings before allowing a two-run home run to Charley Parker in the third and was then relieved by a returning van der Goot in the fourth.
"She did her job," said Deckop of Gillman, who went three innings, allowed three hits and a walk and struck out four.
By the time Gillman allowed Parker to pull a dinger over the left-field fence — which Jaime argued was foul — the Rebels had already built a 7-0 lead, as another Deckop single scored Alina Okamoto and Kim in the bottom of the second.
Simon led off with a third-inning single and scored on an error to make it 8-2, while Kim came around in the sixth on a Johnson single and subsequent error on the play for the Rebels' last run.
Though she didn't showcase the usual dominance that has proven her to be one of the area's top pitchers, van der Goot pitched four scoreless to finish the game, allowing three hits and two walks, while striking out five.
Also crucial to the Rebels' success was some advantageous base running and errorless defense.
Leading into Tuesday's game, the Rebels' only loss was a hiccup against Westridge in which van der Goot was not pitching due to illness. However, the Rebels also committed five errors.
"We're very confident with [Caitlin]," Jaime said. "The difference today is we didn't make any errors."
Another weak spot for the Rebels in the past had been a lack of fundamental base running, but on Tuesday they made good use of their speed and smarts on the bases, taking extra bases on throws and making the most of a slew of passed balls and wild pitches, including two occasions in which runners went from first to third on wild pitches.
"Adding a base running element has been a conscious effort," Jaime said.
Added Alina Okamoto: "I have to give that one to Jaime, she's the one that's been making us run extra at practice. We've definitely improved."
And now the Rebels, with three games in league remaining, are halfway through a crucial week in which they will play Mayfield — the defending league champs who also entered Tuesday tied with Rio Hondo with two league loss — on Thursday in a crucial game.
"It's a huge week for us," Jaime said. "It can make or break what we've worked this season for."