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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
DOWNEY-When it comes to the 2016 San Gabriel Valley League softball championship, Warren High’s loss is Gahr High’s gain, and that gain came from one of the five freshmen on the team. Third baseman Paloma Usquiano went three for four and drove in three runs as the Lady Gladiators posted a critical 5-1 road victory last Thursday.
The win gave Gahr its first season sweep over the Bears since 2008, the same year as Gahr’s last victory at Warren. The four-run victory is also the largest margin of victory against Warren since a 6-0 win on Apr. 18, 2000. The Gladiators are now 6-13 at Warren since 1998.
Usquiano, who scored the winning run against Warren in a 3-2, eight-inning decision on Apr. 12, lives in the city of Downey and was supposed to go to Downey High but wanted to go to Warren. She said that she has played with all of the Warren girls in recreational ball for the Downey Ponytails. So, preventing them from any shot of a league title was one of the best moments of her young high school career.
“Before league, I wasn’t hitting consistently,” Usquiano said. “But coach Shawn [Quarles] and my teammates [told me] to keep my head up and to keep working. So I kept working in my backyard. As a freshman, this is awesome.”
“Today was just critical for accomplishing our main goal of trying to win this thing outright,” Quarles said. “We knew it was going to be a tight game. We expected it to be tight until the last inning. I’m just glad we came out on top this time, finally. Hopefully we can stay on course and win the rest of the games.”
Although Gahr had stranded four runners on base through the first two innings, it broke through in the top of the third. With one out, junior catcher Alyssa Kumiyama singled and was replaced with senior courtesy runner Alyssa Rodriguez, who eventually scored on the first of Usquiano’s singles.
But the Lady Gladiators (20-5-2 overall, 8-0 in league) broke the game wide open with a three-run fifth. Again with one out, Kumiyama reached on an infield single. Junior first baseman Malia Quarles followed that up with a base hit to left field and freshman left fielder Jazmine Hill was safe on an error to load the bases. Usquiano then hit a bouncer that just went past Warren shortstop Lesley Bojorquez to plate Rodriguez and freshman pinch runner Irene Dorado. On the next pitch, a groundout from senior center fielder Alyssa Cuffia allowed Hill to make it 4-0.
“I was just relaxed,” Usquiano said. “We saw their pitcher the first time and the second time I saw her, I knew what she was coming with. I’ve been playing with them since I was younger, too. So I kind of knew where [Garcia] was going to pitch me.”
“As a freshman, every game you can see the improvement and maturity happening,” Shawn Quarles said. “I think we’re just getting towards the end of the year and Paloma is just blooming into a great player that we know she can be. They have to get their freshman jitters out first. Once all of our freshmen do that, we’re going to be a hard team to deal with.”
Gahr added its final tally one inning later when sophomore shortstop Dejanae Davis was hit by a pitch and later scored on an error. Warren would deny sophomore pitcher Danielle Martinez a chance of a shutout in the bottom of the sixth when Brooklyn Araujo scored on an unearned run.
Martinez also had a solid game, scattering six hits and striking out four while walking none. She retired the first seven batters of the game and did not allow a Warren runner to reach third base until the fifth. Coupled with an 18-3 home win against Paramount High this past Tuesday, Martinez now has 12 wins on the season, tied for fifth place on the Gahr leader board since 1999. The last Gahr pitcher to win 12 games in a season was Roni Alvarado, who did it in 2006 as well as 2005. Jennifer Markovitz also won 12 games in 1998.
“The strength of Dani is she is so efficient,” Shawn Quarles said. “And she has so much command of her pitches. She’s not going to overpower you, but she’s going to put it exactly where we need her to put it to get some outs.”
“Oh my god, Dani did an amazing job,” Usquiano said. “I just love how she trusts her defense and just lets her defense work.”
Another reason why Gahr was successful against Warren was a change in the batting order. Sophomore designated player Kerrington Houshmandzadeh, who had batted in the ninth spot in the first meeting, moved up to the No. 2 spot. She had entered the game batting .632 in league action. Kumiyama and Malia Quarles flip-flopped batting spots and Usquiano moved up two spots to the sixth position.
“We wanted to put more speed at the front with Kerrington and have [freshman second baseman] Gisele [Tapia] see some better pitches in the nine spot,” Quarles said. “Kumi is just hotter than Malia right now, so I wanted to get her more at-bats. As far as everybody else, it just fell into place where how they have been performing.”
The Lady Gladiators had been on a solid tear throughout the past seven weeks, winning seven straight games and 12 of 13 games until they blew a sixth inning lead against North Torrance High in the first game of a doubleheader on Apr. 25. Then in the nightcap, Gahr saw leads of 5-0 and 9-6 in the final two frames turn into a 9-9 tie. But the team took out its frustrations the next day in an 11-0 home win against Lynwood High before the Warren game.
“I’m giving them a mulligan on that Monday doubleheader,” Shawn Quarles said. “We had 50 mile per hour winds and we were all very miserable and wanted to go home. But it’s hard to stay at the top the whole season. So I’m glad we’re kind of peaking and I think our rhythm is coming in right now.”
Gahr has not won the league outright since 2008 and has not gone undefeated in the circuit since 2007. But with a win at Downey High on May 5, the team can accomplish the former and that happens, they’ll be on its way to a 10-0 league mark when it wraps up the regular season against last place Dominguez High on Tuesday. The Lady Gladiators will then take a nine-day break until the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division III playoffs begin. Gahr began the week as the fourth-ranked team in the division.
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