Spartans surge into CIF finals

Lauren O'Leary, the ace pitcher of La Cañada High's softball team, went straight to the bullpen after giving up two runs in the third inning in a CIF Southern Section Division V semifinal game against South El Monte.

The hurler wanted to refine her delivery in hopes of not having another challenging inning.

"We were just trying to get back in sync and work out all the kinks," O'Leary said.

Everything started flowing for O'Leary from that point on at her home field. She retired the side in order in the top of the fourth and only allowed just three base runners the rest of the game, guiding the Spartans to a, 6-2, victory Tuesday.

The win propelled the Spartans into the CIF Southern Section Division V championship game.

No. 1 La Cañada (25-3) will get a chance to claim the division title at 5:15 p.m. Friday in a game against No. 2 Beaumont at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.

Beaumont (25-4) is the Mountain Pass League champion, while the Spartans captured a title in the Rio Hondo League.

"These girls have worked so hard to get to this point," said La Cañada Coach KC Mathews. "I'm just so happy for them; they've done a tremendous job all year."

The Spartans scored in the first inning after Anna Edwards and Kelsey Drange were walked to start the inning. Catherine Horner moved Edwards to third with a deep fly ball to right field and Megan Siepler brought Edwards home with a run-scoring single, giving La Cañada a 1-0 lead.

O'Leary started out strong and retired the first six batters she faced through the first two innings. However, trouble came in the third when South El Monte's (16-11) Julissa Castellanos was hit by a pitch and Andrea Barcenas walked to start the inning. O'Leary got the first out of the inning on a grounder, before Valerie Velasquez hit a hard shot on the ground to Kelsey Drange at first. Drange threw home trying to get Castellanos at the plate, but the runner slid just under the tag to put her team on the board, 3-1.

Velasquez was thrown out on a steal attempt for the second out of the inning. It proved to be big because Angie Aguinaga doubled to bring Barcenas in to score, cutting the Spartans' lead to 3-2. O'Leary allowed one more base runner in the inning, via a walk, before getting a strikeout to end the inning.

"[O'Leary] wasn't quite getting the calls on the outside of the plate," Mathews said. "She missed a couple spots and they got a couple hits. Lauren's such a competitor, though. She just battles through and battles through. Even when we get in trouble, nothing fazes her, she just goes back to work."

La Cañada's offense quickly took the pressure off O'Leary with a two-run third inning of its own.

"Our hitting and defense did their job, so I had to do my job too," O'Leary said.

Horner started the inning with a single and advanced to second on a passed ball. Siepler moved her over to third with another single and Aubri Thompson brought Horner home with a single to right field. Annie Monroe cashed in Siepler with a squeeze bunt.

"That inning was real important," Mathews said. "We get Lauren a couple of runs and she can do the rest. It was up and down the lineup today. We were getting squeezes down and hitting the ball to the right side to move runners over. It was important for us to get us back in charge there."

Thompson knocked in the Spartans' sixth run with another RBI-single down the right-field line in the bottom of the fifth.

"I was really happy to help my team out because it was a closer game than we've had so far," Thompson said. "It felt good to get those RBIs and help my team out ... We always work on driving the ball to the opposite field and she was pitching outside so I just had to wait back and go with it."

The win puts the Spartans back in a CIF Southern Section title game for the first time since 1995. Last year, they came a win away from the championship game, falling to South Hills, 3-1, in the semifinals.

"It feels so amazing," Edwards said. "We've come so close the past few years and to make it to the finals feels so good, especially in my senior year ... Finishing my senior year out with a ring would be the best. It would be the perfect season."

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