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CIF-SS DIV. 2 SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS Gahr rallies late as Cortez delivers in walk-off fashion for program’s first championship

The Gahr High softball team claimed the program’s first CIF-Southern Section championship after defeating California High 5-4 in the Division 2 finals. The Gladiators rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and three straight batters with two strikes on them. PHOTO BY LOREN KOPFF.

May 20, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

IRVINE-It’s the walk-off of all walk-offs that will be etched in the Gahr High softball program forever. Down to her final strike in her final at-bat of her high school career, senior third baseman Marley Cortez took a 1-2 pitch from California High’s Alexis Salas and sent it into left field, under the valiant diving attempt of shortstop Shiana Gil, bringing home senior second baseman Larissa Flores and senior center fielder Natalia Hill to cap off a rally for the ages.

It sent the Gladiators into a frenzy as they knocked off the third-ranked Condors 5-4 to capture the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 championship last Saturday night in front of a standing room only raucous crowd at Deanna Manning Stadium at Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park. It’s the first softball championship for the Gladiators, who had been denied of a title in 1989, a 1-0 loss to St. Joseph High and in 2018, an 8-2 setback to Norco High.

Gahr (19-10) had earlier rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, then saw Shirley Acevedo hit a booming home run to left field with one out in the seventh. But as Cortez was sitting in the dugout in the seventh, she knew it was going to come down to her to provide a hit that would either tie or win the game. If that wasn’t enough drama, Flores and Hill also had two strikes on them.

“Oh my gosh, it really doesn’t [get better than this],” exhaled Cortez. “I’m so excited right now. I can’t believe it.

“It was very scary, I’m not going to lie,” she later said of her final at-bat. “But I kept my composure, and I knew I was due for a hit. So, I’m very glad that it was my hit that led us to the win.”

“First off, that’s a great team over there,” said Gahr head coach Rey Sanchez. “There’s a lot of talent on that team. Coach Jason [Ramirez] is a friend of mine; he’s a great guy. There are some other coaches on that team that I’m close with. But their pitcher, Salas, was doing a heck of a job. Early on she held us, and it was minimal hits. Then we started squaring some balls up.

“This has been our plan maybe halfway through the year; what we really committed to getting your pitch and putting a good swing on it,” he continued. “And I think that’s what we started to do; we started to square the ball up. It started with [senior catcher] Alyssa [Aguilar], who hit a ball hard. We unfortunately had a line drive double play that was hit hard. We just started hitting some balls really hard. That was awesome.”

Salas had kept the Gladiators in check through the first five innings, allowing just two hits and walking two for the only baserunners for the second place team out of the Gateway League. But after Flores led off the sixth with a single to right field, Pricilla Ramirez replaced Salas in the circle, to the surprise of Sanchez, and walked Hill. Cortez then reached on an error with Flores scoring Gahr’s first run.

A wild pitch would send Hill home and Cortez to third and two batters later, senior shortstop Rio Mendez doubled to tie the game. Gahr had a chance to take the lead, but Mendez was thrown out at home trying to score on junior left fielder Malaia Huskey’s single to left.

“I think [Salas] had kept us at bay,” said Sanchez. “But I think they may have made the move to give Natalia, who is arguably our best hitter, our most clutch hitter, the one we want up all the time…and I think they wanted to give Natalia a different look. They thought it was a good gamble on their part and hey, it didn’t matter who it was, we started to compete later in the at-bats.”

“I was just trying to move runners over so we could get other opportunities for my teammates to drive in some runs, too,” said Cortez.

Still, the unranked Gladiators had the momentum despite Acevedo’s home run. Freshman pitcher Isabella Gonzalez got Mia Martinez to ground back to her and got Jessica Gurule to fly out to Hill, setting the stage for a wild bottom of the seventh.

With Salas back in the circle, junior designated player Jackie Gachupin singled to left on a 1-2 count but two pitches later, senior first baseman Vivian Tavera tried to move Gachupin on a bunt. Instead, she popped it up to Hailey Chavolla, who threw to first to complete the double play.

Flores would come back up and worked a full count before Salas walked her. Then on a 2-2 count, Hill fouled off three straight pitches before reaching on an infield single. Salas would be ahead of Cortez 0-2 before throwing a ball, then the hit heard around Cerritos.

“Marley has not just clutched up this year,” said Sanchez. “That has been her M.O. since she’s been in this program. She had a great freshman year, but her sophomore year for us, she was league M.V.P. [and] the M.V.P. of our team. She pitched, she hit; she’s so steady. She got down two strikes to a really good pitcher, and you just watch her and she’s as calm as can be.

“I knew, as soon as that happened, with Marley up there being as calm as she could be, with thousands of people here…this is probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been part of,” he continued. “This is probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been part of; the most electric game I’ve ever been part of, and she’s as calm as can be.”

Gonzalez was in a groove in the first two innings, retiring the first four batters on seven pitches before hitting Mia Martinez. In the third, Chavolla led off with a base hit to the right field gap and Gonzalez walked Gil. Three pitches later, Isabella Salas’ base hit to center brought home courtesy runner Lauren Trivino.

In the next inning, Martinez had a lead-off double to left field, moved to third on a passed ball and made it 2-0 on Gurule’s double down the left field line. Then with two outs and two on, Isabella Salas singled to left to plate Gurule. After that, Gonzalez would give up two hits over the final three innings.

“I knew we would be able to do it,” said Cortez. “With the energy and how we’ve been this season, I know our capabilities and I knew we were going to be able to come back and score some runs. We’re never discouraged, and we always have that energy to bring us back up and fight.”

This was the third time all season Gahr had rallied from a three-run deficit to get the win. The other two times, it trailed Banning High and La Habra High by identical scored of 4-1 only to win 6-4 both times.

“I’ll tell you what,” Sanchez explained. “Bella did not have her best stuff. Almost every inning, I was asking her, ‘what are we going to do to get these hitters out’, because they squared up some balls early on her. They hit some balls hard on her. Luckily, we were positioned pretty well on most of them. But Bella is a competitor; that’s exactly what she is. She’s going to find a way even when she doesn’t have her best stuff.”

Sanchez has decided to turn down the invitation to the CIF Southern California Regionals as Gahr has finals on the day of the first round [May 28] and graduation the next day. In his six years with the program, Sanchez has been to the semifinals twice, bounced out in the first round twice and this season. There were no playoffs in 2020. He now owns a 96-44-2 record at Gahr, which is the second best mark since 2007. The previous two coaches had six-year stints with Shawn Quarles winning 126 games and Mike Rogers compiling 74 victories.

“I’ve been part of the baseball program at Gahr, and I’ve been part of the softball program at Gahr,” said Sanchez. “I’ve been at Gahr for 26 years as a teacher and a coach and I graduated from there. That place means a ton to me. When I was coaching baseball, we were trying to get it done. We were fighting and it’s so dang hard, and it’s hard to win CIF. To bring the first CIF title to either softball or baseball…I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have words.

“I’m so proud, and this is what I told the girls,” Sanchez continued. “This is about playing for a community. You’re not just playing for this team. You’re not just playing for yourselves. You’re playing for Gahr [and] for the Cerritos community. I’m overjoyed that we could do this for Gahr.”