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CIF-SS DIV. 2 SOFTBALL SEMIFINALS – Gonzalez, Hill power Gahr to program’s third championship game appearance

The Gahr High softball team is all smiles as it will be playing in the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 championship game. The Gladiators defeated Mater Dei High 7-2 last Saturday in the semifinals. PHOTO BY LOREN KOPFF.

May 14, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Of Gahr High’s eight seniors on its softball team, five of them were the first ones in the batting lineup when it hosted Mater Dei High last Saturday in a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 semifinal game. Isabella Gonzalez is one of two freshmen on the team and has become the ace pitcher, starting seven of the past nine games.

Gonzalez and four of those five seniors were key components who helped Gahr upend the Monarchs 7-2 in a battle of unranked teams, advancing to the program’s third divisional title game. The Gladiators, who will face third-ranked California High on Saturday night at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine, lost to St. Joseph High 1-0 in the 1989 5-A Division championship game and fell to Norco High 8-2 in the Division 1 finals in 2018.

For head coach Rey Sanchez, the third time was the charm as he had reached the semifinals in 2019 and 2022 while losing in the first round in 2021 and last season.

“I asked the girls to give everything they’ve got,” said an emotional Sanchez. “We’ve talked about discipline; we’ve talked about consistency and the girls are just on another level right now. I knew we played some tough games early on and then in league, when we played La Mirada, I know La Mirada gets us ready for moments like this. I’m overjoyed; I’m trying to control my emotions right now. I’m thrilled that the hard work is paying off. We’re not done yet.”

Gonzalez scattered half a dozen hits, struck out a pair and didn’t walk anyone while senior center fielder Natalia Hill went two for three, scored twice and drove in three. Her one-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth inning increased the lead to 6-2.

“The girls have been locked in since round one and we wanted to chase what’s ours,” said Hill. “We’ve been watching films, practicing hard every single day and overall just working as a team. And the results showed that.

“It was a 3-1 count, and I knew the pitch was going to be a strike,” she later said. “I just wanted to swing my hardest. A home run was not what I was expecting, but I’m grateful for it.”

After spotting the Monarchs a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning courtesy of Jayleen Scott’s triple, Gahr (18-10) went to business off Mater Dei starter Sienna Acosta. She hit senior second baseman Larissa Flores on a full count to lead off the bottom of the first. Hill doubled her in on the next pitch and senior third baseman Marley Cortez doubled on a full count to make it 2-1. Following a pitching change, senior catcher Alyssa Aguilar took a 2-2 pitch from Citlaly Valencia and sent it over the left field fence and just like that, Gahr had a 4-1 lead after seeing 18 pitches.

“They came out with a hair on fire, it seemed like,” said Sanchez. “There was nothing stopping them. Larissa has a great at-bat and that rallied everybody. Then on the next pitch, I knew Natalia was locked in and that girl has been locked in pretty much all year long. She’s our motor.

“Then Marley comes in and hits a missile and has another great at-bat,” he continued. “Then obviously Alyssa, with what I love her doing is going oppo with power. I always want her doing that because I think she can do that so well. That was fun to watch.”

“I know that they have good pitching,” said Hill. “I was just looking for a pitch that I could drive my teammate in. Larissa does have good speed, so I knew that if I hit the ball in the gap, then the game would be tied. I was just going up there to pass the bat and score the run.”

The Gladiators would strand a pair in each of the next two innings despite getting just a two-out triple from junior left fielder Malaia Huskey in the third. But with one out in the next frame, Flores reached on a fielder’s choice before Hill’s home run put the game out of reach.

For added insurance, Huskey doubled with one out in the fifth and scored the game’s final run on a single from junior designated player Jackie Gachupin. The top of the lineup of Flores, Hill, Cortez, and Aguilar combined to go four for 12 with six runs and six runs batted in.

While the offense was putting pressure on the Monarchs, Gonzalez was getting out of one jam after another while keeping her pitch count down. After Kayleigh Sutton singled with one out in the third, Gonzalez got Sophia Rolon to hit into a double play. Then with one out in the fourth and the score 4-2, Aly Carrillo hit into a double play. Cat Kawabe would be stranded at third after a lead-off single in the fifth, Scott couldn’t advance past second base in the sixth and a two-out single from Olivia Montoya in the seventh was followed up by a game-ending groundout.

“I told Bella from day one that she’s a dog,” said Hill. “She’s just the hardest working freshman I’ve seen, and I can’t wait to see what she does for these [next three] years at Gahr. She knows how much I appreciate her; I hype her up from the outfield as loud as I can and she’s just a good competitor.”

“Once I came here to Gahr, and as a freshman, I really wanted to try to make a big impact,” said Gonzalez. “We have an amazing team-Alyssa, Nat, Rio, Larissa-everyone here is just so amazing.”

After 19 pitches in the first inning, Gonzalez never threw more than a dozen pitches in any inning and no more than four batters came up to bat in any inning. She finished with 81 pitches and improved her record to 12-3 with three saves. Her only losses came to La Mirada High twice and Torrance High.

“In the middle of the season, coach Rey and I were still getting to know each other and what pitches work and what doesn’t work,” said Gonzalez. “A big thank you to Marley because she’s helped me become very comfortable on the pitching staff. She’s such a sweet person.”

“Obviously with what Marley has done and still having experience, plus a little bit of experience with [sophomore pitcher] Olina [Burgueno] as well, I had some foresight there and I thought that Bella would take on that role,” said Sanchez. “We’re a little stronger on defense when we have Marley at third and [senior] Vivian [Tavera] at first. When Marley pitches, we usually put Viv over at third.”