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CIF-SS DIV. 5 SOFTBALL QUARTERFINALS-Valley Christian’s Zhang shuts down hot-hitting Providence squad in low scoring affair

Valley Christian High sophomore centerfielder Choyce Chambers (#4) steals third base in the top of the third inning against Providence High in a CIF-Southern Section Division 5 quarterfinal game last Thursday. Chambers would score two batters later and the Defenders would go on to blank the Pioneers 2-0. Chambers collected two of the five hits V.C. would get. PHOTO BY STEVE FERICEAN.

May 13, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

When the Valley Christian High softball team hosted Providence High last Thursday in a CIF-Southern Section Division 5 quarterfinal tilt, the Defenders weren’t concerned about the .394 team batting average from their opponent. They weren’t concerned that four of the first five in the lineup batted at least .429 with at least 30 hits.

The Defenders just did what they’ve been doing most of the season and rode the arm of freshman Rachel Zhang, who silenced the third-ranked team in the division, escaped a couple of jams and helped her team to a 2-0 victory. Coupled with a dramatic 21-13, nine-inning thriller against St. Bonaventure last Saturday in Ventura, V.C. moves on to the divisional finals against fifth-ranked Liberty High out of Winchester.

“They’re good; they’re a good hitting club,” said V.C. head coach Chet Kingery of Providence. “We did our research on them. We developed another pitch with Rachel this week. She did a really, really good job in trusting me and trusting that new pitch and kept their bats quiet.”

“Going into the game, I checked their stats, and I did my scouting; we all did,” said Zhang. “We knew what to expect. So, we came in confident [knowing] they’re a strong team, but we knew we could beat them. We just had a strong connection and trusted each other. We believed that we were better.”

Providence, which lost for just the fourth time in 2024, threatened in the top of the first inning when Mia Allinson singled with one out, went to second on an error and stole third. But sophomore catcher Peyton Kingery caught Delailah Lopez leaning off first base, and Zhang got Olyvia Rutter to ground out.

After striking out the next three batters, Grace Workman’s line drive single up the middle began the third. But she too would be caught stealing third and Zhang added two more strikeouts to end another scoring opportunity.

The best chance for the Pioneers to score came in the fifth when Belen Benito led off with a single into shallow right and was sacrificed to second. After the sixth and last strikeout of the game, Kayla Archuleta reached on a catcher’s interference call before a fielder’s choice ended that threat. Zhang would retire seven of the final eight batters she faced.

“I focused on one pitch at a time; one out at a time,” said Zhang. “I trusted my defense and I trusted my catcher and my coach.”

“Oh, it’s been amazing; Rachel is really good at hitting her spots,” said Peyton Kingery on being Zhang’s batterymate. “I’m really confident catching her because I know she’s going to hit her spots. She rarely ever misses, which is amazing for me as a catcher.”

The first five in the Providence lineup went a combined three for 15 and struck out twice as Zhang threw a first-pitch strike to 14 batters and was ahead 0-2 half a dozen times with two of those batters getting on base. She did not issue a walk and threw 126 pitches. In the four playoff games in her young high school career, Zhang has thrown 544 pitches in 27 and a third innings.

“Her confidence has been building,” said Chet Kingery. “When we first started the season, her and [senior pitcher] Bella [Bulthuis] did a great job for us. But as the season went on, Bella still pitched really well for us, and Rachel has one of those pitches that moves a little bit more. But her confidence, facing some top teams like Long Beach Poly and Whittier Christian, as a freshman, made her really tough as nails on the mound.”

“She was a little tired today in the bullpen and I was talking to her before the game,” he later said. “I told her to hit her spots, make them swing the bats [because] defensively, we’re really good. We did talk about not walking people, and she did a great job of that.”

“I just made sure to hit my corners, hit my spots and just know that my defense has my back,” said Zhang.

Offensively, the Defenders (18-6) were having their struggles with Rutter, who also allowed five hits. But with two outs in the bottom of the third, and facing a 1-2 count, sophomore center fielder Choyce Chambers beat out an infield single to Lopez. After a walk to Peyton Kingery, junior first baseman Kayla Martin was safe on an error, allowing Chambers to break the scoreless tie.

That was followed by another error, allowing junior shortstop Britton Brown to load the bases. But for the second straight at-bat in two innings, freshman right fielder Tallulah Ireland was robbed of a single when Breanna Pelaez dove forward to make a catch on her knees.

“Choyce is extremely fast and as dumb as this may sound, it’s almost as if she’s a right-handed slapper,” said Chet Kingery. “I mean, she doesn’t have a slap swing at all; she’s a power swinger. But any ball in the infield, you have to be flawless in making a catch and throw or the kid is going to beat it out. As you saw, it made that third baseman rush her throw and it’s what got things going.”

After a three up, three down bottom of the fourth, the Defenders, ranked sixth in the division, added an insurance with Zhang a big part of hit. Batting in the ninth spot, Zhang fouled off three straight pitches after being down 1-2 in the count and drove a pitch to left field. Chambers then singled to left and Peyton Kingery sent her second hit to right field.

“In that moment, I was really just trying to just get something going; just trying to get on base and just trying to keep it simple,” said Peyton Kingery. “Not really trying to go for a home run…but just trying to keep it simple and just fining my pitch and going with it and producing for my team.”

But on the play, Chambers rounded second base a bit too far and would be thrown out as Zhang came home for the second run. Chambers, Peyton Kingery and Zhang combined to go five for seven.

“She did it on Tuesday against Shadow Hills,” said Chet Kingery about Zhang’s at-bat. “She had a tough at-bat, and she stepped up with three hits against Shadow Hills and that carried over to today. She got a pitch she could get the barrel on and hit it up the middle.”

“I kind of visualized me stepping on first base,” said Zhang. “And then I saw a hole and [knew] I just had to touch the ball; I just can’t strikeout. I just thought I was better than [Rutter] and I can hit off her.”

This will be V.C.’s first trip to a divisional championship game since 2006 when that team lost the Division V title game to Pomona Catholic High 1-0, wrapping up a 21-10-1 season. The program won divisional titles in 1994 and 1995 and lost in the 1975 finals. This is also the first time since 2012 that V.C. has won 18 games.

“The only thing I can say is Valley Christian softball is back,” said Chet Kingery. “That’s all I can say. These girls are buying in and they’re playing with moxie, grit, tenacity and have a chip on their shoulders. This is a great group of kids and I love them.”

“To me it feels amazing to be a part of this team and being able to provide the school with that and making history again,” said Peyton Kingery.