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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
HEMET-The Premier Girls Fastpitch has been around for seven years and in all but one of those years, Bob Medina, the manager of the Artesia Punishers 18 Gold travel softball team has participated in its Southern California Qualifier, among other qualifying tournaments. But Medina did something last weekend at Diamond Valley Lake Community Park that none of his previous teams had ever done.
The Punishers failed to win a game in the So Cal Qualifier, losing to the (Orange) Southern California A’s, managed by Peter Vecvanags,6-0 last Friday, then being sent home early by the (Agoura Hills) Jets 3-2 last Saturday morning. Medina’s teams have failed to earn an automatic berth to the PGF National Championship from the So Cal Qualifier and from 2010-2014, had gone 12-8 in So Cal Qualifier games.
“Yesterday was frustrating also because I know we have a younger class like I said and I don’t want to keep going back there, but the younger ones are expected to hit the ball,” Medina said. “They’re good; we put them on the team because they can hit. I think the pressure in this situation is tough and I told them that they need to make sure that they do always hit the ball. If we don’t support our pitcher, we’re not going to win. Offense wins the game.”
The Jets took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when pitcher Leah Gonzales (Banning High/University of Hawai’i, Hilo) walked Khenedi Johnson after an eight-pitch battle. Following a sacrifice from Gabi Hirsch, Johnson stole third and scored on a groundout from Sage Miller.
But the Punishers rallied back in their half of the frame. On the first pitch, shortstop Alexxis Ponce (Santa Fe High/Portland State University) doubled to center. Two outs later, catcher Shayna Dahlen (Villa Park High/Idaho State University) launched a shot that snuck in just to the right of the left field foul pole for a two-run home run. Dahlen had only 90 minutes of sleep early Friday morning because of her graduation night festivities Thursday night, but managed to make it in time for the game against the So Cal A’s.
“What a great response,” Medina said. “Her responding, coming back with that two-run home run, was kind of the way I thought the game was going to go all the way through. We kind of died a little bit, but…she has the potential to do that all the time.”
However, the Punishers would be limited to three hits the rest of the way, all coming with two outs. After Vanessa Dwyer had retired nine straight following the home run, left fielder Alexis Sargent (North Torrance High/Hope University) and right fielder Yamila Evans (St. Monica Academy) each singled but would be stranded. The same would happen to Ponce in the fifth inning and Sargent in the sixth after she was walked.
Meanwhile, Gonzales was doing her part to keep it a close game. She pitched a perfect second inning and got great catches from Ponce and Sargent in the process. In the fourth, Hirsch sent a little flare just behind the outstretched arms of Sargent and eventually tied the game on a single from Nathalia Velasquez.
The Jets would score the game winner in the sixth when, with two outs, Gonzales walked Johnson for the second time. She would steal second and was moved to third on a sacrifice from Hirsch. But an overthrow in an attempt to get Hirsch out allowed Johnson to come home. The play proved to be costly because on the next pitch, Miller grounded out.
“When she bunted, I thought we had them handled,” Medina said. “When she bunted, all of the coaches were yelling, ‘eat it, eat it, don’t throw it, don’t throw it’. It was an off-centered throw and she was safe already. There shouldn’t have been a throw.”
Gonzales, who faced the Jets just six days prior, pitched six solid innings, threw 82 pitches and allowed just three hits.
“We played them [last week] and she pitched a couple of innings,” Medina said. “She only had an hour and a half of sleep coming in from grad night. I said if I pitch her again, she’s going to be my ‘go-to’. Not only that, it’s going to pep her up a little bit so that she has the will to do it. She did a fabulous job and we told the girls that they had to score to give [Leah] support.”
The Punishers, as has been the case since last month, haven’t had their full squad together and had 15 players for the game against the Jets and 11 players out of the 23 that are on the Gold team as well as the Red team, were in Hemet for both games. In the first game, a dozen players suited up and the Punishers were missing six starters.
The team was limited to just two hits against the So Cal A’s and the first eight batters were retired before Jessica Delgado (El Rancho High/Arizona Western College) and Ponce singled with two outs. The only other runner to reach base was catcher Crystal Carillo (Warren High/Odessa College), who was safe on an error with one out in the bottom of the fifth.
“You have to remember we had a young squad coming in the last couple of years,” Medina said. “But that young squad is all seniors now. So, the coaching staff in us kind of took our lumps years before. But we had that squad. We have that championship squad. We just can’t get them here. We didn’t realize that was going to be our problem at this point.
“It’s been a frustrating month for us and for the coaches too,” Medina later added. “The coaching staff…what a great support. They’ve been here every day working hard. We’re really working hard on the younger group also. I’m not going to make excuses for this, but we have kids who are out and we’re still not at full throttle. And it’s difficult that you’re missing that key hit.”
After going two and out in the Arizona and So Cal Qualifiers, the Punishers will hope to do much better this weekend in the Las Vegas Qualifier, where four automatic berths will be up for grabs.
“What I expect is that they all come out [with] good camaraderie, good gelling, doing it for the team and doing it for everybody,” Medina said. “Play for each other, play like it’s your last game. Have fun and remember this moment for the rest of your life.”
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