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By Loren Kopff
WESTMINSTER, CO-The Artesia Punishers 18 Gold travel ball team won the championship of the Triple Crown Sports Colorado Sparker Tournament. But it wasn’t the type of championship the team was looking for.
In fact, immediately after the Punishers recorded the final out in their 6-0 win over the Sugar Land (TX) Stealth Gold this past Sunday afternoon at Christopher Field, the team didn’t jump around and celebrate the way most teams would after winning a tournament. But coach Ed Blanck and his team will take the championship and the hardware that came with winning the Pikes Peak Bracket, the bracket set aside for teams who finished in fifth place in their respective pools.
“It feels good,” Blanck said. “Like the girls expressed to me, they’re not real happy being seeded as a fifth place team and they just wanted to come out and do their best and win it. They should have been [seeded] higher and they just did their job. That was it.”
The meeting with the team which hails from just outside of Houston was the second in 26 hours. Unlike the 5-2 victory over the Stealth last Saturday which was decided in the sixth inning, the Punishers put the championship game away with three runs in the top of the fourth.
The Punishers were leading 1-0 in the third on a wind-aided triple down the right field line from third baseman Mercedes O’Connor (Edison High School/Brigham Young University), who would then score on wild pitch. With one out in the fourth, designated player Marissa Padilla (Santa Monica High School) singled and catcher Heather Cameron (Cerritos High School) reached on an error. A fielder’s choice from right fielder Sarah Parten (Mayfair High School), the youngest player on the team who will enter high school next month, brought in Padilla and a walk issued to second baseman Jessica Munoz (Canyon High School/Southern Nevada University) would load the bases.
The lead increased to 3-0 on a base hit from shortstop Emily Brucelas (Fountain Valley High School/University of California, Santa Barbara), which plated courtesy runner Deja Portillo (Gahr High school) and a sacrifice fly from O’Connor brought in Parten.
That was more than enough for pitcher Cerissa Rivera (Fountain Valley High School/Monmouth University) who was completely stellar in the circle. Rivera scattered four hits, struck out six and did not walk a batter. No Stealth runner got past second base and Rivera, who threw 91 pitches in seven innings, reached a three-ball count three times.
“I couldn’t do it by myself, obviously,” Rivera said. “I have a whole team with me. But it felt nice to finally get the opportunity to be in a big situation and be the one with the ball in my hand. It was nice to have my team behind me and actually win the last game that we needed to win.”
The Punishers added solo tallies in the fifth and seventh innings and finished with 11 hits, the fourth time in the six playoff games they had reached double digits in hits. Padilla went three for four while O’Connor and first baseman Analisa Nicholson (Redondo High School) each had two hits.
Most of the talk in the final few days of the tournament was centered on Rivera and the pitching staff. Jennifer Iseri (Cerritos High School) had sprained her left knee during pool play action on June 27 and would not pitch again in the tournament. That left Rivera and Sara Garcia (Santa Monica High School) as the only pitchers the remainder of the tournament. While Rivera got the bulk of the pitching, it was Garcia who came through in the clutch last Saturday against the USA Athletics.
Garcia allowed single runs in the first two innings but kept the USA Athletics at bay which allowed her team to score three in the top of the third as the Punishers escaped with a 4-3 win which sent the Punishers into the semifinals.
“Sara did an amazing job,” Rivera said. “When we needed her, she came out the most. She had a tough game the day before but she snapped right out of it and picked it up and more on it against a really good team.”
The Punishers sent eight batters to the plate in that third inning and received run scoring singles from third baseman Melissa Ortega (Banning High School) and Parten. The USA Athletics tied the game in the bottom of the fourth on a double from Julianna Bravo but she was stranded on second with one out. Garcia then got some defensive help in the next inning as Tiana Bonde reached on an infield single but was doubled up when Amanda Paredes sharply lined out to Munoz, who was celebrating her 19th birthday. Garcia would get Taylor Manning to fly out for the final out. Eight players accounted for all eight hits for the Punishers.
In this past Sunday’s semifinal game, the Punishers showed no mercy against the (Minnetonka) MN Rebels in an 18-1 romp. The Punishers scored in each of the five innings of the game, had all but one starter record at least one hit and had eight players score two runs. Brucelas went three for four with five runs batted in including a grand slam as part of a nine-run fifth inning while O’Connor went four for five. Rivera pitched the first three innings while Garcia relieved the team’s number one pitcher who was battling her share of injuries.
Throughout the majority of the week, Rivera was pitching with a blister on her pitching finger, a blister on her foot and a cut toe on her other foot. But she managed to allow 14 hits and strike out 21 batters in 25 innings of work during the six playoff games.
“It wasn’t really so much of Cerissa because she’s like that,” Blanck said. “She’ll just step up and do whatever we ask her to do. Actually, it was Sara Garcia. Sara Garcia is the one that felt the pressure. She stepped up big for us a couple of times.”
“It was so much pressure because I was actually depending a lot on [Jennifer] because the whole team knew she is a strong asset to our team as a pitcher,” Rivera said of getting the majority of playing time. “We do have Sara G., who is a good pitcher. But having our number two pitcher go down is a huge stressor and I knew I had to step it up.
“It was hard at first because that’s all you think about, especially after [Jennifer] went down,” Rivera later added. “I was hoping I would get to pitch fewer innings. But when your team is depending on you, you need to suck it up. It got easier but I have to finally get the rest because it hurts so bad.”
The Punishers began the playoffs last Friday with an easy 15-1 win over the Santa Cruz Rays as Garcia went three for four, scored twice and drove in two runs and Nicholson went two for three with two RBI. Parten came off the bench to add a two-run triple in the fourth inning. Later in the day, the Punishers scored seven runs in the top of the first and cruised to an 8-3 victory over the (Sacramento) Northern California Patriots. Ortega went three for three and scored twice while Padilla went two for three and drove in three runs.
Last Saturday, in the first meeting with the Stealth, the game was tied 2-2 going into the bottom of the sixth. With one out, Ortega singled and was safe at second on an error, which allowed Nicholson to reach on a fielder’s choice. That set the stage for Padilla, who laced a double off the Stealth’s first baseman’s glove, bringing home a run. Following a strikeout, an infield single from Munoz allowed Nicholson and Padilla to score.
After going 1-3 in pool play action, despite outscoring their opponents 20-17, the Punishers committed 11 errors. In the six playoff games, the Punishers had three errors. Offensively, the top six in the batting order-Brucelas, O’Connor, Garcia, Ortega, Nicholson and Padilla-all batted at least .333. Padilla led everyone with a .706 average (12 for 17) over the final six games.
“They stuck to their strategy, hitting the ball hard on the ground and playing strong defense,” Blanck said. “I know in the pool play games we had quite a few crucial errors. Some are errors that don’t cost you anything but no; we had errors that cost us runs. But they got themselves together and played like a team.”
This is the first time since 2007 the Artesia Punishers had taken home some type of championship in a major national tournament. In 2007, the Punishers won the Amateur Softball Association 18 “A” National Championship in College Station, TX.
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