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SOFTBALL – Cerritos rallies to knock off Norwalk in extra innings behind pair of freshmen pitchers

Norwalk High junior pitcher Kendall Nakano was a complete workhorse in a 9-6, nine-inning loss to Cerritos High last Thursday evening. After pitching nine innings against Hacienda Heights Wilson High on Mar. 7, Nakano worked eight innings against Cerritos, throwing 124 pitches. At the plate, Nakano was three for five, scored twice and hit a one-pitch home run to begin the bottom of the first inning. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.

March 15, 2023

By Loren Kopff  • @LorenKopff on Twitter

As members of the defunct Suburban League, Cerritos High dominated Norwalk High, especially in the later years, winning 15 of the last 16 games from 2011-2018. The two have met once as non-league members, a 10-0 Cerritos win in 2021. However, after the first two innings last Thursday, it looked as if Norwalk would own this game.

But in sports, adversity is always on everyone’s mind and talked about by all. That was true for Cerritos, which found itself down by four runs twice in the first part of the game before two freshmen pitchers stymied the Norwalk bats over the past seven innings. The Dons scored three times in the top of the ninth inning and freshman pitcher Ava Ceron worked the last two innings, including a perfect bottom of the ninth inning, throwing nine pitches and getting three groundouts in a 9-6 win.

After the game, Cerritos head coach Todd Denhart preached to his team that one word that once again is on everyone’s mind in sports.

“That’s what we talked about; just compete,” said Denhart. “You’re not going to win every game. But if you go out and compete, we’ll accept whatever happens. We haven’t done a good job of that so far this year. [Norwalk] is a good squad. We played them two years ago when they had that good group of freshmen and we handled them pretty well. 

“It’s a different team; they’re two years older, stronger, more experienced,” he continued. “That’s a good team. When I was watching them warm up, I was like, uh oh, we might be in trouble because they had two good pitchers and we just battled. We haven’t been in that situation, but we responded like I wanted them to.”

Cerritos High junior third baseman Toafaoalii Pua makes a play early in last Thursday evening’s game at Norwalk High last Thursday. Pua went two for five and drove in a pair of runs as the Dons rallied for a 9-6 win that went nine innings. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.

Coming into the season, junior Kylie Manibusan was slated to be the leader in the circle as last year’s starter, Erin Gibbs, graduated. Denhart admitted he didn’t know about freshman pitcher Danielle Baca coming in but knew a little about Ceron because her older sister, Haley, is a senior on the team. But as it turned out, Manibusan had surgery last Wednesday on a partial tear in her left knee. The doctors told Denhart normal recovery is two to three weeks but for softball players, add another few more weeks.

That meant Baca got the starting gig against the Lancers and after a rocky start, settled down and didn’t allow a runner to get to second base until the bottom of the eighth. The top of the ninth inning began with junior pitcher Kendall Nakano walking senior center fielder Camille Lara, who would steal second. A base hit from junior first baseman Natalie Gardea plated Lara and that was followed by a single from sophomore catcher Alianna Calderon. Both would steal their respective bases and Cerritos increased its lead following a base hit from sophomore shortstop Katherine Villegas. Two batters later, a groundout from Baca concluded the scoring with Calderon touching home plate.

The game began with Norwalk junior pitcher Jalynn Banda striking out a pair of batters. But in the middle of the inning, Banda complained of having a sharp pain in her knees. According to head coach Fred Perez, he said she felt something during the warmups before the game and let the coaches know but told them she wanted to try to go out there. After the top of the first inning, she informed the coaches it was a little too much than what she could take.

Still, the Lancers batted around in the bottom of the inning and put up four runs. On the second pitch of the inning, Nakano blasted a home run over the left field fence. Senior shortstop Leilani Juan then singled on a full count and senior third baseman Cerise Cervantes doubled down the left field line. With one out, junior first baseman Itzel Hernandez drove both in with a single to the left field gap, and following a single from senior left fielder Kasarey Lotts, would make it 4-0 when senior second baseman Sasha Gonzalez was safe on a throwing error.

The Dons (5-1) would cut into their deficit in the top of the second when junior third baseman Toafaoalii Pua reached on an infield knock and Nakano walked Baca. A single from senior left fielder Catherine Quibrantar brought in Pua and sophomore courtesy runner Anaya Granflor came home on a wild pitch. Norwalk added two more runs in its half of the inning when Cervantes launched a two-run home run deep into the Norwalk night with one out. However, after sophomore second baseman Julie Vega singled and stole second after the home run, the Lancers (5-4) would collect two singles and have two runners reach on walks over the next four innings with no one getting to second base.

“Yeah, it seemed like that,” said Perez when asked if he felt the game was getting away after the second inning. “It just seemed like we were probably chasing that big hit. We started going away from just placing the ball. Pretty much that’s what happened [after the second inning].”

Meanwhile, the Dons chipped away in the third as Lara and Gardea scored on a two-out throwing error, then tied the game in the fifth when Gardea singled, Calderon reached on a fielder’s choice and Villegas was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Three pitches later, Pua singled to center to tie the game. She would be stranded at third, but Cerritos continued to keep the pressure on. Lara doubled with two outs in the sixth, Calderon led off the seventh with a single, stole second and would be out when a ball hit by Villegas hit Calderon as she was heading to third base. 

But one of the stories on the evening continued to be Baca, who threw 128 pitches in seven innings, giving up 11 hits, walking five and striking out two. Most of that damage, of course, came in the first two innings.

“Every inning she came out…she just got better and better as the game went on,” said Denhart. “You can see her grow.”

“It’s just that their plate approach probably changed a little bit from the first two innings,” said Perez of his hitters. “When they went out there in the first two innings, I know they were just trying piece it the ball; try to put it into play. Once they pieced it up, and they saw a few of them did, I think everyone was trying to hit the ball a little bit too harder than they should have.”

Norwalk had opportunities to end the game in the seventh and eighth innings. Senior pinch hitter Alicia Anguiano led off the seventh with a first-pitch single to left, but on the next pitch from Ceron, Hernandez popped up to Calderon, who doubled up Anguiano at first for a double play.

In the next inning with one out, freshman center fielder Nayeli Sanchez reached on an error and went to second on a wild pitch. An infield single from Nakano put runners at the corners, but Juan struck out on a 2-2 count and even though Ceron walked Cervantes, the rally died when Anguiano popped out to Pua.

“I know she was trying to go [opposite] with it; she was trying to push it to the right side,” said Perez of Juan’s last at-bat. “She really even tried to get that outside pitch to move it out there. It just didn’t happen.”

Gardea collected three hits while Calderon and Pua each had a pair of hits as the Dons, who have 18 on the team but came to Norwalk with 10 players and ended the game with nine. Quibrantar exited the contest in the bottom of the second when she fell down hard on a foul ball hit in the left field corner.

“All of them, with the exception of the two freshmen, have been practicing with us since their freshman year, and that’s part of the reason,” said Denhart. “I knew, when taking over the program, after the first year, I’m going to lose some quality kids. After my second year, I’m going to lose some quality kids. These kids need to be ready. So, they’ve practiced with us…just the speed of it, the intensity of it…so they know what to expect. [Natalie] was slated to compete for an outfield spot. I needed a first baseman [and asked], ‘Nat, can you do it’? She’s doing a great job over there and is just coming along.”

Cerritos began 605 League action on Mar. 16 against Pioneer High and will make up a rained out game at Redondo High on Monday before hosting John Glenn High on Tuesday. 

“I think it can be a huge catalyst for us, or I’ve seen it go the other way too,” said Denhart of the win. “Hey, we rallied, and we beat a very good team [and] we don’t have to work very hard [next time]. But then now, that’s my job to make sure that that little lull doesn’t come into play. But it’s always there in the back of their mind that they can draw off it because they’ve done it. It’s not like we’re asking them to do anything they’ve never done before.”

For the Lancers, who got three hits from Nakano and two each from Cervantes and Juan, they hosted Redlands High on Mar. 16 and make up a pair of rained out games against Downey High and San Dimas High on Saturday to wrap up the Santa Fe Tournament. Norwalk will then entertain Firebaugh High on Tuesday in the Mid-Cities League opener. Norwalk will also travel to Paramount High on Thursday.

“You’re going to have games like this,” said Perez. “The thing is, is when you come back [for] the next game, what’s going to be your response? That’s all it is. During the season, you’re going to have a game like this that slips away. I know it happened to us last year. This is probably going to be the one for this year.”