GROSS PARK — The Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' softball team had already clinched at least a share of the Santa Cruz League championship when it squared off against St. Matthias.
However, the Guards had no desire to share the title, and their goal was to capture the crown outright.
However, to do that they needed to defeat the five-time league champion for the second time this season.
Bell-Jeff nearly fell short of its goal, as visiting St. Matthias pushed across two runs in the top of the seventh inning Thursday at Gross Park to take a one-run lead.
Undaunted, the Guards came back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the seventh, securing an 8-7 victory to clinch the championship for their own.
It was the first league title for the Guards in 17 years, as a Carrie Breedlove-led team won a championship in 1993.
"Our goal was to be successful this season and to play as a team," Bell-Jeff first-year Coach John Castaneda said. "But we have exceeded all expectations this year.
"The girls really worked hard this season and they made things happen. We as coaches can just show them what needs to be done, but they are the ones who have to do it on the field."
The Guards have been able to be successful this season despite some hardships. Injuries, players leaving the team, players dismissed for disciplinary reasons and making due with some athletes who had never played softball before, Bell-Jeff has overcome plenty of obstacles.
"With all the changes, our job as coaches was just to put the right players in the right positions," Castaneda said. "We have had to change some things around, but the players have always been willing to do what they had to do to help us be successful."
Trailing by a run in the seventh, the Guards battled back. Sarah Martinez started things off with a single to center. The ball rolled under the fielder's glove and Martinez motored home with the tying run.
Monique Landini followed, reaching base and getting to second on an error. A wild pitch put Landini at third with the winning run. After a flyout, the next batter, Ashley Ketchum, laid down a bunt that was fielded by the third baseman. Instead of checking the baserunner and looking her back to third, the infielder threw to first, allowing Landini to sprint home.
"When I saw her throw, I thought 'That's it; I have to go," Landini said. "I knew I could make it."
Bell-Jeff (14-4, 8-0 in league) has made a monumental leap from where the team finished last season. In 2009, the Guards went 5-11 and placed third in league.
Against St. Matthias (8-11, 6-2) — a team Bell-Jeff defeated, 17-6, on the road April 27 — the Guards fell into a pattern that has plagued them all season. Bell-Jeff fell behind early, 1-0, after the Victorians scored a run in the top of the second inning.
"Falling behind has been a definite problem for us," Castaneda said. "But our philosophy is that if a team scores two runs on us, we want to come back and score five on them."
Bell-Jeff almost did just that, pushing across four runs its half of the second. The Guards took advantage of three walks, a hit batter, an error and singles by Martinez and Katelyn Villareal to take a 4-1 lead.
Bell-Jeff made it 5-1 in the third on a run-scoring single by Juliana D'Agostaro that plated Jacklyn Pons, who had doubled.
Diana Rosa walked and scored a run for the Guards in the sixth.
St. Matthias whittled the lead to 6-5 with four runs in the fifth inning, spearheaded by a three-run home run from Aileen Bojorquez.
The Victorians grabbed the lead back in the top of the seventh inning with two runs, which were aided by two Bell-Jeff errors.
The Guards will have a chance to add to their success when they begin the playoffs next week.