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CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION DIVISION 1 SOFTBALL SEMIFINALS :Stephens scores game-winning runs in quarterfinals, semifinals as Gahr advances to title game

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter


CHINO HILLS-For the second straight game, Gahr High freshman third baseman Taylor Stephens scored the winning run in the eighth inning, the second allowing the Lady Gladiators to secure a spot in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division 1 championship game. Stephens, who hit a home run against Mater Dei High last Thursday, came home on a single from sophomore right fielder Sydni Jones as sixth ranked Gahr edged seventh ranked Chino Hills High 1-0 this past Wednesday on the road.

This will be the second time in school history that Gahr will play for a softball championship. In 1989, the Lady Gladiators, with De De Weiman in the circle, lost to St. Joseph High and Lisa Fernandez 1-0 in the 5-A division title game. The Lady Gladiators (24-5 overall) will face top-seeded Norco High on Saturday night at Deanna Manning Stadium at Colonel Bill Barber Park in Irvine.

“Sydni has been pretty clutch for us all year and even in the last game, she got up in the end and she had two solid hits,” said Gahr head coach Shawn Quarles. “But she’s been making solid contacts and I just knew it was a matter of time before she came through for us. So, that was clutch right there.”

Gahr was facing the Huskies for the second time this season, having defeated them 11-3 on Apr. 7 in the third place game of the Michelle Carew Classic. Gahr didn’t face Kendall Mangel, who gave up just three hits in the semifinal contest. At one point, Mangel retired 14 straight batters.

But in the top of the eighth, she walked Stephens and one out later, gave up a single to sophomore designated player Johanna Rodriguez. After a groundout moved the runners to third and second respectively, Jones, the number nine hitter in the lineup, sent a one-strike pitch to center and brought in Stephens.

Before the eighth inning, Gahr had runners on base in two other innings. The first time came in the second when junior left fielder Jazmin Hill and Stephens were hit by pitches. After a sacrifice from senior first baseman Jade Wittman, Hill was caught in a rundown between third and home. In the seventh, Hill would also be caught in no man’s land after she had reached on a fielder’s choice.

“She was being a little aggressive at first and in the second inning, I told her it was on me,” Quarles said. “I told her to go, but I think she just got a late start and the communication wasn’t there. We were just trying to be aggressive and make things happen.”

While Gahr couldn’t get much going offensively, the other star of the game was senior pitcher Danielle Martinez, who had replaced senior pitcher Vanessa Foreman in the bottom of the fifth with two outs, a runner on second and a 1-1 count on Kayla Chavez. Martinez needed two pitches to strike her out, but ran into trouble in the next inning.

With runners on second and third, Martinez struck out the next three batters to keep the game scoreless. Chino Hills would also strand runners at second in the seventh and eighth innings, both with two outs.

“When I go in, I just take my deep breaths,” Martinez said. “That’s really a big part of my pitching, is breathing. Honestly, I just think this is it and I have one job. I’m going to back up my teammates and I’m just going to get it done. That’s my mentality when I get up there.

“When these situations come, I just remain calm as possible,” she later continued. “I’m not putting pressure on myself. Personally, I like to be in these situations; I want to challenge myself and see what I’m going to do and what I’m going to get out of it.”

“Dani is about as tough as she can get now,” Quarles said. “That’s why we have her coming in and closing out stuff because we know she’s going to be able to hold the ship right,” Quarles said. “If we can get four strong innings from Vanessa, then close it with Dani, then we have a good chance.”

After having some bad luck go Gahr’s way the past three seasons in the playoffs, Quarles called the win over Chino Hills redemption. In 2015, the Gladiators fell to Grand Terrace High in the semifinals. The next season, they were knocked off by Redondo High in the quarterfinals and last season, Gahr was upset by St. Lucy’s High in the second round for its only loss of the season. Since 2015, Gahr has compiled a record of 98-20-2.

“Honestly, I think going into this year, I think everybody knew their senior year was the year and I really just wanted to go out since it was my last year,” Martinez said. “My team definitely has my back and I trust them 100 percent.

“It’s been really frustrating, but I just keep thinking every year we’re just going to get better and better and it just fuels it for the next year, just to keep going, keep fighting and keep wanting it,” Martinez said of the past playoff woes. “I think this year is going to be the year.”
In the quarterfinals, Gahr had a 3-1 lead before Mater Dei tied the game fourth inning. Stephens’ home run came on a 1-1 count with one out.

“I just really wanted to think small; get on base and just make contact with it,” Stephens said. “And, it just so happened that I made contact at the perfect time and it just went out.”

For Stephens, it was her third home run of the season and came at a very emotional time as a few hours later, she would be going to a viewing for her grandfather, Mario Miranda, who recently passed away.

“Life has a very special way of showing up and I was very happy that Taylor was up there,” Quarles said. “She just recently lost her grandfather and I think he was looking out over her for that and I think she had extra focus on that one. That girl has just been clutch for us all year. We’re excited she was up in that position.”

The Lady Gladiators jumped all over Mater Del starter Mackensie Kohl early on as she walked senior shortstop Dejaenae Davis and gave up a single to junior second baseman Giselle Tapia within the first six pitches she threw. With one out, Hill reached on an error, which allowed Davis to score. Tapia would later score on another error and a base hit from Stephens plated Hill.

The Monarchs tied the game with one out when Foreman walked Amanda Valle and gave up an infield single to Kelli Godin. Two pitches later, Nyomi Jones doubled to the left field gap, signaling the end for Foreman.

“The good thing about this team is that we are fighters,” Quarles said. “We’ve been in some good fights this season, so these girls are used to getting into bar fights. It turned into that and they responded.”

Martinez replaced Foreman and worked the rest of the game, striking out five and allowing a two-out double to Jones in the sixth and a two-out single to Godin in the eighth. Mater Dei stranded 11 runners on base in the game.

“I love Dani,” Stephens said. “I think she’s an amazing pitcher. I think it was the perfect time to make that switch because they needed to see someone different.”

In the bottom of the sixth, Hill thought she had put her team in front as she launched a long fly ball that just went foul by a few feet instead of going for a home run. Hill was celebrating halfway up the first base line until the umpires called it a foul ball.

“We have a really great team and I think that our chemistry together…when we really put our effort together into it and we just become this one great team, we can beat anyone,” Stephens said.