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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
For the second straight season, the Gahr High softball team fielded a team worthy of winning a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division III championship. And for the second straight season, the Lady Gladiators lost an opportunity for said championship in the late innings of a late round playoff game.
After taking a 4-1 lead into the top of the seventh inning last Thursday against Redondo Union High, Samantha Pech launched a first-pitch, two-out, three-run home run over the centerfield fence to give the Sea Hawks a 5-4 lead. Then Redondo Union held off a last chance rally by Gahr in the bottom of the seventh. Last season, a critical error in the top of the seventh enabled Grand Terrace High to knock off the Lady Gladiators 4-3 in a semifinal game. Gahr was hoping for a potential rematch with Grand Terrace, which would have been in the finals either tonight or on Saturday.
“I guess I’m still in a little bit of a shock,” said Gahr head coach Shawn Quarles. “But they’re a good team, so I have to give my hats off to them. They didn’t give up; they kept fighting back. She got a pitch that she liked and she made the most out of it.
“It was a good game and I’m proud of my girls,” he continued. “We were in a position to win. But in this game, someone has to win and someone has to lose.”
“This is, right now, the biggest win of my career,” said Redondo Union head coach Jennifer Dessert. “I couldn’t have asked for a better game. We were in the right position to score so many times today, and for it to come down to the top of the seventh inning with runners on…just enough runners that we needed.”
With the score tied 1-1 after five innings, the Sea Hawks loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth on a pair of singles and a walk issued to Gayle Wilson. But sophomore pitcher Danielle Martinez got Elena Ceja to fly out to left to end the threat. Gahr took advantage in its half of the frame when, with one out, junior catcher Alyssa Kumiyama was hit by a pitch and senior courtesy runner Alyssa Rodriguez came home on a double from junior first baseman Malia Quarles.
Following a strikeout, sophomore center fielder Madison Huskey belted a two-run shot over the centerfield fence to give the San Gabriel Valley League champions and third seeded team a 4-1 lead. It would appear that the Lady Gladiators would be in a good position, considering Redondo Union had the bottom two of the lineup coming up in the seventh.
“I was excited about our chances,” Shawn Quarles said. “Our middle [of the lineup] was kind of due for something in this game. I kind of knew something was going to break through, and I’m glad it did. I just wish we could have held on to it.”
But McKenna Villagrana-Zayas singled to right before Kate Cunningham grounded out to Malia Quarles and Martinez struck out Imani Moore. The at-bat of the game would then come from Kathryn Ung, who fouled off two straight pitches on a 1-2 count before walking after seeing three straight balls. Two pitches later, Allison Betty singled to right to make it a 4-2 game and one pitch later, Pech’s shot put the sixth-seeded team in front.
Gahr (24-6-2) would have a golden opportunity to tie or even win the game in the bottom of the seventh. Sophomore designated player Jade Wittman reached on an error and Ung walked freshman second baseman Giselle Tapia. With none out and the top of the lineup coming up, it was a good situation.
But a pop-up in foul territory on an attempted bunt, a strikeout and another pop-up on a total of nine pitches ended that last chance and sent the hosts in complete shock and disbelief.
“We knew how to keep [Gahr] off-balanced,” Dessert said. “We knew that they’re a good hitting team. When Kat came into the dugout, we kind of exchanged looks and I said, ‘look Kat, they’re a good hitting team’. They were popping up the off-speed and they were popping up the rise. It was just a matter of time that they would start catching up.”
After a perfect first inning by both hurlers, the Sea Hawks grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second on a double from Wilson, bringing in Pech who had led off with a line drive single to center. After Wilson’s double, Martinez would allow three runners to reach before the sixth inning, and all came in the third inning. Meanwhile, Gahr tied the game when Huskey hit a two-out solo roundtripper over the left center fence. She ends the season with five home runs, second on the team.
“She’s just started to come around,” Shawn Quarles said. “Madi is just an incredible hitter and she didn’t have one of her best years. But these last couple of weeks she’s started to come around. When Madison Huskey is on, I think she can hit anybody in the country.”
But after that home run, Ung would retire 11 of the next 14 batters before she hit Kumiyama. When Redondo Union took the lead in the seventh, it was just the third time that the Lady Gladiators had lost a sixth or seventh inning lead that resulted in a loss or tie.
Gahr graduates just Rodriguez and center fielder Alyssa Cuffia, meaning it will be stacked and loaded for the 2017 campaign. The team batted .363 and had seven everyday players bat at least .329. Martinez was solid in the circle with a 14-5 record, a 2.41 earned run average and 128 strikeouts. Gahr will also have three players coming back who will be seniors, another seven who will be juniors and five soon-to-be sophomores coming back.
Gahr posted 24 wins for the second straight season despite graduating six players from last season’s squad. But the Lady Gladiators didn’t lose a step this season and went 12-1 during a stretch from Mar. 15-Apr. 21. Sophomore Dejanae Davis picked up where she left off last season and led the team with a .506 average, Tapia batted .339 in her first high school season and freshman third baseman Paloma Usquiano was second on the team with 27 runs batted in.
“That’s kind of why we were able to have a successful season still,” Shawn Quarles said. “Even after losing those seniors, we had a super strong freshmen class that came in. So we really didn’t miss a beat. The chemistry on this team is really, really good. I really thought we had a good shot of [a championship] this year. But next year is another year and that just makes it more special. It’s hard to get to that championship game; a lot of things have to fall into place.”
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