IRVINE — Coming into the 2011 season, it was hard to imagine La Cañada High's softball team not winning a CIF Southern Section Division V championship.
The Spartans had made it to the semifinals in 2010, and 2011 marked Lauren O'Leary and Anna Edwards’ last high school season after being pillars for La Cañada for four years.
“I felt that we had a very solid club with so much experience,” Spartans’ Coach KC Mathews said. “I liked my chances.”
With a great deal of confidence, La Cañada had played cool, calm and collected all season, and nothing changed in Friday's CIF Southern Section Division V championship game against Beaumount at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.
La Cañada was so confident coming into the game that there was even some sparkling apple cider tucked away on the Spartans’ team bus if the game turned out in their favor.
“We definitely knew that we had a shot this year,” La Cañada's junior catcher Catherine Horner said. “We were so close last year and we knew this was the year to do it.”
In the end, the Spartans may not have won as convincingly as they may have liked, defeating Beaumont 1-0. However, in the win they used a recipe that's been working for the past four years — the one-two punch of Edwards and O'Leary.
Both senior standouts delivered La Cañada's first CIF Division championship since 1995. O'Leary, the starting pitcher, provided the shutout and Edwards was responsible for the lone run of the game, a solo home run in the top of the third inning.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” said Mathews, referring to how both O'Leary and Edwards brought their high school careers full circle with a CIF championship.
It looked as if the Spartans (26-3) were going to put their stamp on the game in the first inning after they loaded the bases with one out. Edwards got on base to start the game with a leadoff walk. Kelsey Drange reached first after she laid down a bunt that Beaumont (25-5) pitcher Alyssa Fuimaono quickly fielded to nail Edwards at second for the first out. Then Horner doubled and Megan Siepler loaded the bases with another walk. La Cañada couldn't cash in, though, as Fuimaono settled down and struck out Aubri Thompson and Lauren Cox to keep the game scoreless.
Fuimaono and O'Leary combined to make the championship game a pitcher's duel. Both hurlers allowed just three hits between them. Fuimaono struck out nine but walked four. O'Leary allowed only four base runners the entire game (three hits and one error) and struck out eight.
Both pitchers were pretty much perfect, with the exception of one big mistake from Fuimaono. And Edwards made her pay dearly for that mistake. She got out to a pitcher-friendly 0-2 count against Edwards to start the top of the third inning. She threw an outside curveball that Edwards just fouled off and came back with the exact same pitch right after, but left it a little too high. Edwards stayed back and smacked a hard line drive in the air over the right-center field gap, and the ball kept rising.
“[Fuimaono] missed and I took advantage of it,” Edwards said. “I knew I hit straight on it but I didn't think it was out. I thought it was a double or single to right-center, and then it went out and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, is this happening?’”
Edwards had the feeling the win was all but sealed when she saw the ball clear the fence for a home run.
“All you need is one run with Lauren, she's amazing out there,” Edwards said. “She's so tough to hit against, has so much control and I feel great standing behind her.”
She was right; the 1-0 edge was all O'Leary would need. She allowed a base runner in each of the first two innings but didn't look back after Edwards gave her a run to work with. O'Leary retired 15 of the last 16 batters to finish the game and retired the Cougars in order in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings. She also struck out the side, albeit not in order, to end the game.
“Anna did her part, so I thought I had to do my part,” O'Leary said. “We mixed up the pitches and as soon as we got ahead I felt like we shut down their momentum.”
The one-run win made for a nail-biter. But Mathews said playoff competition is supposed to get fiercer as the tournament goes along.
“That was a great game,” he said. “[Beaumont] is a well-coached team and they played their butts off. They made a mistake on one pitch or we might still be playing. They fought their tails off, my hat is off to them.”
The Spartans kept having fun until the very end of the game, even after Beaumont's Kristen Neal got on base — representing the tying run — with a single in the bottom of the seventh inning. La Cañada's infield huddled up for a meeting on the mound and started laughing when O'Leary broke out in song.
“It was a pressure situation, so I was just trying to make them laugh and relax everyone,” O'Leary said. “We have a lot of inside jokes and I started singing to her.”
After the huddle, O'Leary came right back and struck out the next two batters to end the game.
“Lauren works so hard,” Horner said. “She comes into every game and keeps her composure. Even when that girl got on base in the last inning she didn't let it faze her.”
Mathews knew the road to a CIF championship was going to be a tough task coming into the season, but he always trusted his squad, anchored by the five seniors: Edwards, O'Leary, Megan Siepler, Kayla McCue and Shirley Drange.
“These five seniors came through here and put this team on their back,” Mathews said. “I have a great coaching staff that has been working with them for the past three or four years, but they took this program and put it on their backs and here we are in the CIF championships. It's been incredible.”
Edwards scrambled to find the right words to describe how it felt to win a CIF Southern Section Division V championship.
“We've been working, not just this season or preseason, but our entire high school careers for this,” Edwards said. “For it to happen, and happen like this, I can't even put it into words — the best way to end my high school career.”