LA CRESCENTA — In Tuesday afternoon's CIF Southern Section Division III softball wild-card outing, Crescenta Valley High came out swinging and so too did Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.
Problem for the host Falcons was, the Knights were sending line drives into the outfield, while the Falcons countered by swinging at bad balls out of the zone.
It amounted to a four-run deficit for CV after an inning that ultimately set the tone throughout the Falcons' season-ending 9-4 loss to Notre Dame.
Conversely, in the lead-up to the game, interim Coach Mark Samford stressed good pitch selection at the plate and that if his Falcons (20-7) played to their abilities, they would prevail against the Knights (12-11-1). In the end, neither seemed to occur.
"If I had to say, that's been the big issue this year when we struggle," said Samford of swinging at bad balls. "If we made plays that we're capable of making, I think this game turns around."
To Notre Dame's credit, though, it came out on a tear, rudely greeting Falcons hurler Olivia Thayer to the tune of three consecutive hits, including a pair of doubles, and the score was quickly 2-0 before two errors on one play led to a 3-0 score and allowed a groundout to shortstop to up the lead to 4-0.
"The damage was done," Samford said.
Though it was only the bottom of the first, the Falcons likely needed a quick answer, but instead went down 1-2-3, despite all three hitters seeing three-ball counts and appearing to have swung at balls out of the zone to lead to all three outs.
"I'd like to have a dollar for every time I've stressed that," said Samford of being patient at the plate.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the 4-0 hole might very well have been a factor at the plate, as well.
"I think everyone was just so eager to come back," said junior Brady Sanford. "We started swinging at pitches that weren't necessarily strikes."
Overshadowed in the wild-card defeat was a stellar game by Sanford, the diminutive No. 9 hitter who had a hand in all four of her team's runs, going three for three with three runs batted in and a run scored.
Notre Dame tacked on another run to make it 5-0 in the second, but CV finally got patient against Knights starter Olivia Lucchese, who walked the bases loaded with no outs in the second. She was then pulled, having pitched to a three-ball count against all six batters she faced. In came Marisa Keckeisen, who induced a fielder's choice to shortstop that kept the bases loaded, but retired one. She then notched a strikeout before Sanford came up.
"It was definitely nerve-wracking, but we were behind and we really needed a comeback," said Sanford of coming to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. "I didn't want to leave my teammates on the bases."
Sanford fell behind, 1-2, in the count, before she lifted a double on an inside offering to clear the bases, scoring Jessica Morena, Tiffany Briscoe and Taylor Hill to cut the score to 5-3 and breathe new life into the Falcons.
"I definitely thought a comeback was possible," Sanford said.
Alas, Sanford was stranded on second, just as the next three base runners for the Falcons were, before Hill was doubled up after a sixth-inning single. Finally in the seventh, senior captain Allison Lacey, a four-year starter, made it a memorable final Falcons at-bat when she doubled in Sanford. But Lacey was then stranded and, by then, it was too little too late.
Notre Dame, which added two more unearned runs in the third and then two more in the seventh, tallied 10 hits in all. The Knights' top four batters — Jennifer McNeill, Bernadette Ochoa, Lucchese and Melanie Allegretti — combined to go eight for 15 with eight runs and six RBI.
In contrast, the top five in the CV lineup, which has largely been the strength of the team all season, combined to go just two for 16 with two walks, one RBI and two runs, while going one for seven with a walk and Lacey's RBI double with runners on base.
Thayer went the distance, allowing nine runs (six earned), 10 hits and walking one while striking out six.
As for Samford — who took over the program in the offseason after legendary longtime Coach Dan Berry, the architect of the program, passed away — he said he might give a second thought to coming back after initially saying it would just be a one-year plan for him. He admitted the job was open and said he would consider it.
"I would think about it again," he said, "but I would think about it in different terms. I would consider it."