WESTCHESTER — For the past two years, Will Thayer has had his Crescenta Valley All-Stars softball teams come painfully close to a division championship, only to come up short each time.
Last season, the Foothill Major All-Stars also came up short in their Southern California State Championships tournament bid to a familiar Westchester Del Rey squad.
While Thursday's Southern California Division III championship game at Kent D. Mace Field couldn't have gotten any closer, a division celebration was finally to be had for the consolidated Crescenta Valley-Foothill Junior All-Stars squad.
Alex Howard delivered the 5-4 win over tournament host Westchester with a walk-off single that scored Sammy Fabian, who led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a double.
"I just hit it and ran," said Howard, who was 0 for three in the game until her final hit. "It is unbelievable, I have never won a game this big before."
CVFH (7-0) was able to exact revenge on both teams that doomed its division title hopes the past two years with tournament victories over Westchester, which knocked off the Foothill Major squad last year, and Victorville, which defeated a Thayer-coached Crescenta Valley Junior squad in the title round two years ago and fell to CVFH, 9-0, Tuesday.
The victory sends CVFH to the Western Regional Tournament in Arizona where it will open against Garden City Little League of Missoula, Mont. on Aug. 2.
It was also the closest game CVFH has had not only in the tournament, but in the postseason, as it won its first three division games 10-0, 10-2, 9-0. CVFH's closest call before Thursday came in the Section 2 championship game when it defeated Canyon Country-Mission Hills, 13-9.
"I use all my experience to be in moments like this," Thayer said. "For my blood pressure, 10-0 is better, but the adrenaline is flowing and I probably won't go to sleep until God knows when. We've been at this for three years and been so close the other two times, but here it is."
Howard's hit rescued CVFH, which committed four errors in the game and a handful of other defensive gaffes, from another heartbreaking loss and if-necessary championship game with Westchester Friday.
CVFH took a two-run lead, 4-2, into the top of the seventh, but Westchester quickly made things interesting when Dominique Campos (two for four) hit a lead-off double over the center fielder and Andrea Guzman (three for three) blooped a single to right field to put runners at first and third.
A successful Melissa Euyoque squeeze bunt cut the lead to 4-3 and Sarah Robinson (two for four) knotted the score for the second time in the game with a soft line drive to left field. CVFH relief pitcher Adela Alatraca, who gave up five hits, three runs, a walk and struck out one over three innings, stopped the bleeding when she induced two pop outs to end the frame.
"[Bad memories] started creeping in, but the adrenaline was flowing," Thayer said. "I felt like we could do this, like we had it. We had the meat of the order coming up [in the bottom of the seventh] so I knew it."
Fabian, who finished two for four on the day, quickly put things back in order for CVFH when she lined the first pitch she saw off the left-field foul line and hustled all the way around to second base.
"I just cleared my head and did anything to get on base like my coach said," Fabian said. "I was thinking double the entire time because I knew I could make it, I am pretty fast."
Howard rewarded the effort when she hit a hard ground ball in the hole between shortstop and third base. The Westchester shortstop made a great diving stop but the ball hit off her and onto the shallow left-field grass and Thayer waved Fabian home for the winning run.
"It feels really good because last year [Westchester] knocked us out in two games so it was really nice to come back and win it," Fabian said.
It ended a wild ride for both teams. Westchester took the first lead of the game without even a hit in the top of the second, as two consecutive CVFH errors scored Westchester's Amber Kahn, who reached on a fielder's choice and moved to second on an error.
Kahn scored when Campos hit a chopping grounder to shortstop, which wasn't handled cleanly. Kahn was initially caught in a pickle going home after the shortstop fired a throw to the catcher to catch Kahn in no-man's land, but the catcher's throw back to third was off target, which allowed Kahn to score the first run of the game.
CVFH's offense uncharacteristically struggled early on, as it was retired in order in the first and second innings. Tiffany Bartamian got CVFH back on track when she led off the bottom of the third with a home run to left-center off a 3-2 fastball.
"I fouled off the one before that and I knew I was going to get on the next one," Bartamian said. "I didn't think it was going to go out until I rounded first base and saw it go out. It felt great to get us started."
Thayer said Bartamian's blast helped calm all the nerves for CVFH.
"It's a big game and a lot of the girls haven't been here before," Thayer said. "It's a big moment to come and play for Southern California. They shook it out a bit when Tiffany hit that home run and that was just a sign we were OK."
Jordan Lousararian gave CVFH another dominating performance in the circle, as she held Westchester to three hits and an unearned run through the first four innings before Alatraca relieved her in the fifth.
CVFH took its first lead of the game, 3-1, in the bottom of the fifth when Cailen Rodriguez (two for four) lined a two-run single to right field. Alatraca drew a leadoff walk to start the inning and was subbed out for pinch-runner Taylor Schaffer, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from Paige Baker.
"We had some real clutch play today," Thayer said. "There were big hits everywhere and from some unusual spots."
A two-out Westchester error kept the inning alive, as Howard hit a chopper to short that was bobbled and then thrown too high to put runners at first and third. Howard stole second on the very next pitch to set up Rodriguez' two-run hit.
Kahn cut Westchester's deficit to one, 3-2, in the sixth when she hit a line drive over the left fielder's head to score Chandler Dolan, who led off the inning with a single.
Claire Smith provided CVFH with a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the sixth when she bounced a single into center field to score Calley Ellingford, who reached on a fielder's choice and stole second.
"It feels great," Bartamian said. "It felt like it would never happen."