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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
FOUNTAIN VALLEY-This season’s Artesia Punishers 18 Gold travel softball team experienced something the previous three teams hadn’t-life in the winner’s bracket of the annual Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship. The oldest of all the Punishers’ teams wasted little time in winning its first PGF National Championship game as pitcher Leah Gonzales (Banning High/University of Hawai’i, Hilo) tossed a two-hit shutout against (West Covina) Heybucket 4-0 this past Tuesday morning at the Fountain Valley Sports Park.
Gonzales, who is one of a dozen returning players from last season’s team, remembers what it was like to go two and out in the double elimination portion of the tournament. Gonzales got the start in last season’s playoff opener and allowed 15 hits in a 10-7, eight-inning loss to the (Salem, OR) NW Batbusters.
“It’s kind of redemption from last year,” Gonzales said. “Coming back from the first game last [year], I also pitched and we had lost that game. Coming back and winning this game really meant a lot to this team.”
The Punishers would give Gonzales all of the scoring support she needed even before she toed the rubber as they pushed across three runs in the top of the first inning. Katie Barbarick would walk shortstop Summer Bodkin (Banning High/La Sierra University) and catcher Shayna Dahlen (Villa Park High/Idaho State University) before designated player Savannah Flinn (Beaumont High) would be safe on a fielder’s choice to load the bases.
That set the stage for center fielder Amanda Canizales (Whittier High), who would be the third player to walk in the inning. Four pitches later, first baseman Alexis Lopez was hit by a pitch, which brought in courtesy runner Isabel Sanchez (Alhambra High/Arizona western College). That was followed up by an infield single from right fielder Crystal Carrillo (Warren High/Odessa College),
“It was a really big momentum but no matter what, this team always plays it as a 0-0 game,” Gonzales said. “So, we’re always on top.”
That would be more than enough for Gonzales, who was in a zone the entire game. She threw seven and nine pitches in the first two innings respectively and only allowed a one-out infield hit to Alexis Medina in the second and a two-out infield single to Samantha Jedrey in the fourth. Jedrey would also reach on a one-out error in the seventh for the lone runners that would reach base for Heybucket.
“I was confident coming into the game,” Gonzales said. “My team always has my back. My changeup was really working well today and that kept the other team off-balanced.”
What made the game even easier for Gonzales was the fact that she was getting ahead in the count often. Through the first five innings, in which she faced 17 batters, Gonzales was ahead in the count 10 times and four more Heybucket hitters would connect on the first pitch for outs. Gonzales ended the game with five strikeouts and tossed 72 pitches.
“As a pitcher it’s always important to be ahead,” Gonzales said. “You always have to be ahead of the batter and it allows you to miss your spots a little more so the batters chase.”
The other run that was scored came in the third when Flinn doubled to the left field gap and came home when Canizales attempted a bunt but would end up on third as a result of a throwing error.
Later in the day, the Punishers were in a tightly contested battle with the (Coeur D’Alene) North Idaho Xtreme but a key two-out base hit from second baseman Alexxis Ponce (Santa Fe High/Portland State University) in the bottom of the fifth knocked in Carrillo for a 3-1 lead. The Punishers would have to stave off a late rally to come away as 5-3 victors. It marked the first time since 2010 that Punishers manager Bob Medina had won the first two playoff games of a national championship tournament. Back then, the Punishers were in the Amateur Softball Association ‘A’ National Championships in Hemet.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for us as the Punishers because previous to this we were two and out,” Ponce said. “Just winning the first game, the returners were already saying it’s better than the previous two years. I think that energy, just from us being so proud of that first win…we set out for that accomplishment and tried to relay the message to the girls that this is really important to us because it is our last travel ball [experience]. They just picked us up and they helped us out.”
With the score tied 1-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth, Lopez reached on an error and was replaced by pinch runner Jessica Delgado (El Rancho High/Arizona Western College). Carrillo then bunted and was safe when Hannah Bell’s diving attempt to catch the softball was just short. Pinch hitter Yamila Evans sacrificed both runners and one out later, Ponce singled to center to drive in Delgado. On the same play, Carrillo would be caught in a rundown but still managed to score, making it 3-1.
“My previous two at-bats I didn’t do very well and I knew coming into that situation I knew it was a really important at-bat,” Ponce said. “I needed to get the job done for my team. I just went through my mechanics in my head and it just happened.”
After the Xtreme cut into its deficit in the sixth on a run-scoring single from Riley Thompson, the Punishers struck back for two more runs in the bottom of the sixth. Dahlen reached on an error and pinch hitter Logan Miller (Lakewood High/Whitworth University) singled to left. After Canizales moved the runners over on a sacrifice, Lopez plated Sanchez with her single to center. On the next pitch, a deep fly ball to center from Carrillo allowed Miller to make it 5-2.
The Punishers were down 1-0 after half an inning but tied the game in the second when Dahlen doubled to the left field gap and Sanchez came home when Lopez was safe on an error. Brianna Garrett (Quartz Hill High/Siena College) got the start and worked into the sixth inning, yielding 10 hits and allowing a pair of runs while striking out two. Gonzales came in to get the four-out save. Offensively, the Punishers got five hits for the second time in the day with no one getting multiple hits against the Xtreme and through the first two games, Carrillo and Ponce each had a pair of hits.
“We’re a really good hitting team,” Ponce said. “But it’s just kind of when we have our days and we don’t have our days and I know in a big tournament like this we all need to be on our best day.”
Meanwhile, the Punishers knew they were in a battle with the Xtreme, which finished in ninth place in last year’s PGF National Championship and have been the Idaho state champions five times since 2010. The Xtreme pounded out a dozen hits and was the first of what would be two straight games the Punishers would play against a team from out of state.
“I think it’s a double-edge sword where we know nothing about them,” Ponce said. “So, we’re not fearing anything nor do we think we have the upper hand to where as if it’s a Southern California team that we might have played them before, we kind of [know], ‘oh we beat them before’. Someone always has a better day and maybe it wasn’t their day that time we beat team.”
The Punishers would run into a small-ball buzzsaw against the (Des Moines) Iowa Premier this past Wednesday afternoon and despite a late rally, the Punishers came up short in a 3-2 affair. The Premier, with seven left-handed batters in the lineup, bunted nine times, including three straight times in the top of the fourth, all resulting in the batter reaching on a fielder’s choice which loaded the bases.
The Premier struck in the first when Macy Johnson bunted to the right side, stole second, moved to third on a passed ball and came home on an error. In the fourth, Johnson reached on the second of those three fielder’s choice plays to bring home Mandi Roemmich, who had singled and advanced on an error.
The eventual game-winner came in the fifth when Gonzales walked Kendyl Lindaman who would later come home on a base hit from Roemmich. While the Premier pounded out 10 hits, the Punishers would be virtually silent against Kate Menz.
Through the first five innings, Menz gave up a first-inning single to Ponce and walked Carrillo in the fifth. Canizales would also reach on an error in the fifth. But in the sixth, the Punishers began to wake up. Menz walked third baseman Toshonnie Baker (North Torrance High/University of Hawai’i, Hilo) and Ponce registered her second hit of the game. After Bodkin moved both runners over for the first out, Dahlen’s sharp single to center made it 3-2. But Menz would retire the final five batters of the game and finished with 10 strikeouts.
Following a brief pregame dance-off between (Tarpon Springs) Team Florida Mizuno and the Punishers, even after both managers had exchanged their lineups to the home plate umpire, both teams were hoping to stay alive in the tournament and through the first five innings things were looking good for the Punishers. But Team Florida scored twice in the top of the sixth and pushed across two more runs in the eighth to walk away with a 4-2 victory.
The Punishers scored their two runs in the bottom of the first when Baker doubled to left field on the first pitch and scored on a double from Ponce. One out later, Dahlen singled to center to plate Ponce. However, the Punishers would be limited to three hits the rest of the way.
An opportunity to add more runs and put the game way was wasted in the third inning when the Punishers loaded the bases with none out. Ponce singled and Alison Yawn walked Bodkin and Dahlen.
“We had good momentum going until about the fourth inning and then it changed,” Medina said. “The kids did well. We had two kids who had hamstring [injuries], our fourth and fifth batters [in the lineup]. So, we kind of limped into this one.”
After getting three hits off of Garrett and stranding four runners through the first five frames, Team Florida’s Jordan Roberts belted a two-run home run over the right field fence to tie the game. Then under international tiebreaker rules, Jordan Miller drove in Linda Ross, who began the eighth standing at second. Miller would score the game’s last run on a double from Roberts.
“Out of  teams, I believe there are 18 left,” Medina said. “So we’re right there. The whole tournament, I wished we would have gone in there with our full strength. But my team was my team. Going forward, this is the Mecca of all of softball. It really is; the best of the best. We played those teams. So they’re no slouch to us. We’re here and we competed against them, we can beat every single team that we played against right now who we lost against.
The Punishers played one pool play game last Saturday and two more this past Sunday, which had no bearing on the playoff portion. The Punishers tied the Las Vegas Rage 2-2 last Saturday and tied the game in the bottom of the sixth when Yamila Evans (St. Monica Academy) singled in first baseman Aliana Orduna (Villa Park High) and Ponce. This past Sunday morning, the Punishers edged the (Downey) USA Athletics-Mike Mora 3-2 with all three runs coming within the first two innings. Ponce went two for three with a singles in the first and second innings. Baker would smack a two-run home run in the top of the second.
The final pool play game ended in a 3-3 tie against the (Farmington) Jersey Intensity KOD Mizuno as the Punishers scored twice in the top of the first and tied the game in the seventh on a Flinn single, which scored Canizales. After this past Wednesday’s action, eight teams remained in the “B” bracket of the Platinum Division, including three of the four teams the Punishers played in the playoffs.
“What it really comes down to, we focused on all of the scholarships that we got and we’ve been very successful with that, and putting together a competitive team that can compete in this tournament,” Medina said.
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