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PREMIER GIRLS FASTPITCH NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP : Lack of offense sends Artesia Punishers Gold team to early exit in summer’s final tournament

Left fielder Sophie Little (Culver City High) of the Artesia Punishers 18 Gold team steals second against the (Boulder) Colorado Stars in the top of the sixth inning this past Tuesday night in an elimination game of the 10thannual Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship. The Punishers posted a 4-2, eight-inning victory but were bounced out the next day. Little would score the game-winner in the top of the eighth inning. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.


By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

IRVINE-The Artesia Punishers 18 Gold travel softball team began the 10th anniversary of the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship playing their three pool play games in Deanna Manning Stadium. The Punishers had hoped to end the tournament in the same place today, but with much more at stake-a second national title for head coach Bobby Medina.

Unfortunately, the bats were relatively quiet in two of the team’s three bracket games and were bounced out of the tournament this past Wednesday afternoon after a 4-1 loss to the (Stockton) Batbusters Gomes/Clark at the Orange County Great Park. The Punishers, who finished in third place in the Platinum Division last year, lost on Monday morning before staying alive in the loser’s bracket this past Tuesday night.

“In general, I think it comes down to offense,” Medina said. “Like I told them, if you hit the ball, you’re going to score. You can’t score unless you hit the ball. That’s kind of what ailed the team.”

Needing a victory to stay alive and play later in the evening, the Punishers fell behind 1-0 after half an inning as Keelie Koepp was safe on a two-out infield single, advanced to third on an error and stole home. The Batbusters increased their lead in the top of the third inning when Alyssa Pope doubled to the left field gap with one out and came home on a two-out single from Koepp.

Meanwhile, the Punishers were unable to get much going against Kelsey Burr, who faced one over the minimum through the first four innings and at one point, retired 10 straight batters. In the bottom of the first inning, left fielder Sophie Little (Culver City High) reached on an infield single but was caught stealing second. In the next inning, third baseman Samantha Noriega (Carson High/Berkeley) went the opposite way and was safe on a two-base error. She would move to third on a sacrifice from right fielder Krista Guzman (Schurr High) but was left stranded there.

The Batbusters would ice the game in the top of the seventh inning when Pope tripled home Jazzlynn Velasquez with one out and scored her team’s final run on an infield hit from Megan Johnson. The Punishers would avoid being blanked as Noriega led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a double to the left field fence and touched home plate after pitcher Yasmine Castellanos was walked with the bases loaded. The Punishers would be limited to four hits and left five runners on base.

The double elimination portion of the tournament began with the Punishers facing the (Chicago) Batbusters MT and despite having a runner reach base in six of seven innings, the Punishers couldn’t get that timely hit or two in a 5-4 losing affair. The Punishers had eight hits, but left a dozen runners on base, including the bases loaded with none out in the bottom of the fifth inning after scoring twice in that frame.

“We did well, and we told them, ‘hey, you guys have to understand and follow directions’, which we were getting people up and we were telling them to look inside and the inside pitch comes, and they just let it go,” Medina said. “I said, ‘don’t stay off the high pitch’ and they chased it. It was just different things like that.”

Down 2-0 heading to the bottom of the third inning, Noriega was safe on a fielder’s choice with one out and Little followed with a single. After second baseman Ariana Hamilton (Downey High) sacrificed them, Guzman tied the game with a base hit. The Batbusters would counter with three runs in the top of the fourth inning before the Punishers made it a game in the bottom of the fifth.

Shortstop Jennifer Aguilar (Santa Fe High/Howard College) and Noriega led off with base hits and Little was walked to load the bases. Hamilton then singled in a pair of runs, but after Guzman was walked, three straight strikeouts ended that rally.

The Punishers bounced back the next night with a nifty two-run rally to tie the game, then won it in extra innings, doubling up the (Boulder) Colorado Stars 4-2. Early on, it was a pitcher’s duel between Katherine Serna (St. Paul High) and Julia Qualteri, who both were perfect through the first three and a half innings.

But in the bottom of the fourth inning, Rachel Jones hit a single to shallow center, was sacrificed to second and scored on a two-out triple from Olivia Dampier. Also scoring on the play was Kat Sackett, who was earlier walked.

After the triple, Serna would retire 12 of the last 14 batters she faced, getting a fine double play in the bottom of the sixth inning when first baseman Taylor Genera (Whitney High/Chaminade University) caught an attempted bunt from Hadlee Reichert and threw to Hamilton to double up Jones.

Meanwhile, the Punishers tied the game in the top of the fifth inning when Noriega was hit after battling through a 10-pitch at-bat and Hamilton singled with one out. Following the second out, center fielder Mikala Fletcher (Downey High) and designated player Skylar Liebrecht (St. Joseph High) has back to back singles.

In the top of the eighth inning, and with two outs, Little reached on a fielder’s choice and Serna singled before being replaced by courtesy runner Mya Diaz (Anaheim High). Two pitches later, Noriega doubled to the right field gap for the clinching runs.

The Punishers had seven hits by as many players and Serna threw 116 pitches, allowed two hits and struck out 11.

“Sam was phenomenal,” Medina said. “She leads this whole team senior-wise; she’s like a captain. We never nominate a captain, but she’s like a captain and everybody respects her and everything she says. She’s one of our returners from last year and one of our starting returners.”

Pool play action began last Saturday morning with the Punishers tying the (Sacramento) All American Mizuno-Jackson 1-1. Down 1-0 after half an inning, the Punishers tied the game in the bottom of the fourth. Following that game, the Punishers blanked the (Salt Lake City) Utah Fastpitch Club-Brown 2-0 with solo tallies in each of the first two innings. This past Sunday, the Punishers scored in the bottom of the third inning against the (Collinsville, IL) Extreme Elite, but allowed a run in the top of the seventh inning and the contest ended in a draw. With one out in the third, Noriega singled and two batters later, Guzman plated her with a base hit to the right field gap.

The Punishers would get one more hit the rest of the game, a single from Serna in the next inning, and left four runners on base. Genera went the distance, scattering five hits, and an unearned run. In all six games the Punishers played, they scored 13 runs, collected 27 hits, allowed 13 runs and made seven errors. Of the 27 hits, Guzman and Little each had five, Noriega had four while Aguilar and Hamilton each had three. No one had multiple hits in any of the three bracket games.

“We don’t really look at it as how many [runs] we gave up because pool play is like trying to get everybody in,” Medina said. “People will make errors or something like that and…we’ll save our pitchers and stuff like that. So, we’ll give them runs and we’ll do this, and we’ll make errors, but people will get in and play.

“Even from last Champions Cup, we didn’t have any bats going and stuff like that,” he continued. “We tried to change that. I put 15 hours of offensive hitting in it just before we came here. It seemed like we did everything we could. If we would have put in 30 hours, I think for the last month we would have been better.”

The Punishers had seven players graduate on a team of 28 players. So, the prospects of a better team next summer bode well for Medina. Plus, the team will be more experienced and unlike this summer, they will be sure to play in several PGF qualifiers, hoping to earn an automatic berth into next July’s PGF National Championship.

“That was fun; we’ve done it,” Medina said of last year’s third place finish. “We’ve hoisted a lot of trophies in our time. But it was fun because you’re trying to balance [getting] scholarships and this, and I think you give up a little bit there. If I had nine girls signed, I’d probably win pretty much a lot more. But there would be no scholarships given throughout the whole year. We have a lot of kids here…I would say 76 percent of them have schools that are interested in them. So, this year, I have a lot of young kids and that’s what we put on. I always think about what’s next in the future, and I believed it. If everybody sticks around, we’re going to be good.”