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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
This time last season, the Artesia High softball team had just wrapped up another losing campaign, one that saw the Pioneers finish at 5-11 overall and 2-10 in the Suburban League. At the same time, Norwalk High was celebrating a stellar season as tri-league champions along with La Mirada High and Mayfair High.
Fast forward to the present day and this time, it’s the Pioneers who are celebrating a rare occasion. Two days after defeating Mayfair for the first time in over 19 seasons to clinch their first California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoff berth since 1992, the team capped off the successful season with a walk-off victory in fine fashion.
Senior pitcher Destinee Alvarez, who had led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a first-pitch triple to the right field gap, scored on a first-pitch base hit from sophomore third baseman Brenda Duran to give the Pioneers a 1-0 win over Norwalk this past Wednesday. The Pioneers will now enter next week’s playoffs at 10-8 overall and 7-5 in the circuit. The win was very emotional for head coach Dayna Feenstra, who played at Artesia and graduated in 2003.
“Absolutely amazing,” Feenstra said. “Every time I come out here at practice and at the games, seeing our crowds…even two or three years ago, we only had a few people in the stands. We had standing room only out here today. It is probably one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.”
“It feels really great,” Alvarez said. “You look back and you know you made a difference on the team and the program too.”
Feenstra remembered what it was like during her playing days when the Pioneers won only four league games during her high school career, never won more than five games overall in any season and finished in either sixth or seventh place.
“It was frustrating,” Feenstra remembers. “I had a good group of friends, but they weren’t true athletes. When I was a senior, coach Porsha [Draper]-she was actually one of the assistant coaches-and I’ll never forget this, she told me I was going to come back and help this program. And I promised her that we would make it to CIF. This was huge for us; this is literally a dream come true.”
In the meantime, the Lady Lancers finished a very disappointing season with seven wins in 24 games and a 4-8 league mark. This will be the first time since 2010 that Norwalk will not advance to the postseason.
Just like the first meeting back at Norwalk on Apr. 11, a 3-2, eight-inning Artesia victory, it was another pitcher’s duel between Alvarez and junior Breanna Vasquez. The former had allowed just one hit through the first four innings but had also walked three batters and had another runner reach on an error. The Lady Lancers would have chances to score in each of the first five innings but were foiled by Artesia’s defense.
The best chance for Norwalk to score came in the top of the third when freshman third baseman Brianna Nunez was hit by a pitch, moved to second on an infield single from senior first baseman Ashley Ponce and went to third when freshman center fielder Destanie Cervantes was safe on an error.
But on the same play, Nunez was thrown out at home on a great throw from sophomore right fielder Beautiena Mataele to senior catcher Alyssa Medina. Then Medina got up and threw to sophomore shortstop Natalie Luna who got Cervantes out at second for the double play. After that, 11 of the final 12 outs by Artesia were groundouts, including the final 10.
“Today I felt really confident in the circle,” Alvarez said. “It’s my senior game and [my teammates] wanted me to do good. That just made me work harder.”
“She’s been hurt a little bit but we’ve been trying to work low,” Feenstra said. “So, when she works low, she gets the groundballs. And, we have one of the best infields, I think, in league.”
On the other side, Vasquez was pitching like she did in the first meeting against the Pioneers in which she struck out 12 and allowed three hits. Through the first three frames, Vasquez struck out five and yielded only a single to Alvarez with two outs in the first. With one out in the fourth, Alvarez singled but would get caught stealing. After walking Duran, Vasquez got out of danger when Duran was caught stealing as well.
“Breanna is an amazing pitcher and we knew that coming in,” Feenstra said. “She just throws hard and she hits her spots. We weren’t swinging at the right pitches. I think we were overanxious. Every kid wanted that hit. So, in this final inning, we had our more experienced players who are a little bit more relaxed. We just made the adjustment we needed.”
Alvarez, who said that a triple wasn’t even on her mind when she came up in the seventh, went three for three with Duran getting the only other hit. The win also guarantees a winning season no matter what happens in the playoffs, something the program isn’t used to. This will be the fifth time in school history the Pioneers will be advancing to the playoffs. In 1984, its first trip to the playoffs, Artesia advanced to the Division 3-A quarterfinals before losing to Hoover High 3-0. In 1992, the Pioneers defeated La Serna High 2-0 in the Division 3-A wild card, then knocked off Arlington High 2-0 before losing to South Hills 2-0 in the second round.
“I think it was a lot of the confidence and the maturity,” Feenstra said of the improvement over the past few seasons. “We had great chemistry and every game, there was a different kid who made a big play. Last year, those plays just weren’t made. Each kid, this year, had a huge part.”
“The past two years were very frustrating,” Alvarez said. “There were times where I felt me and my other senior teammate, Alyssa Medina, had to do it on our own. But now with the incoming freshmen and the other underclassmen we have this year, we’ve really worked together.”
In other softball action, Gahr finished the regular season unblemished in 25 games following an 11-3 win over Downey High this past Monday and a 17-0 win over Dominguez High this past Wednesday. In the latter game, sophomore Hannah Kumiyama pitched a perfect game, striking out 12 of the 15 batters she faced.
At least three area teams and possibly a fourth will advance to the playoffs. In addition to Gahr, which won the San Gabriel Valley League following a 14-1 win over Dominguez High, Valley Christian cliched third place in the Olympic League after defeating Heritage Christian High 4-2 this past Tuesday. The Crusaders (14-12, 4-7), could finish in a three-way tie with Heritage Christian, who they faced on May 11, and Whittier Christian High. But V.C. earns the tiebreaker having defeated each of those two schools twice in three games played.
The real drama will come from the Suburban League where Bellflower High, Cerritos High and John Glenn High all entered their May 11 games at 6-5 in the circuit and tied for third place. Two of those schools will earn automatic playoff berths while the other will hope to get in as an at-large representative. Cerritos (18-12 overall) was visiting La Mirada while Glenn (15-11) was home to Mayfair. Both Cerritos and Glenn lost by one run to La Mirada and Mayfair respectively this past Tuesday.
Valley Christian, the Olympic League champions, swept Gahr 25-13, 25-21, 25-22 this past Tuesday in a Division 2 first round match. The Crusaders (21-4) visited Laguna Hills High on May 11 and will host the winner of the Santa Monica High/South Pasadena High match on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
In Division 5 action, top-seeded Cerritos (23-9) had no problem with Samueli Academy 25-5, 25-6, 25-12 this past Tuesday. The Dons travelled to Great Oak on May 11 and will visit either Holy Martyrs High or Woodcrest Christian High on Saturday.
In Division 2 action, Cerritos dropped a 15-3 decision to Windward High this past Wednesday while in Division 3 play, Whitney High was eliminated by Buckley High 15-3 after knocking off North Torrance High 11-7 the previous day in a wild card match.
In Division V, Gahr defeated Nipomo High 14-4 this past Tuesday and Bishop Amat High 10-8 this past Wednesday. The Gladiators will host Foothill Technology High today.
Also in the division, Valley Christian fell to Nogales High 12-6 this past Tuesday in a wild card affair, its earliest departure in the past three seasons. The highlight of the match came from the doubles tandem of sophomore Justin Sandoz and junior Matt Weaver, which won all the sets by scores of 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. Senior Caleb Soto, the top singles player, won his two final sets by scores of 6-4 and 6-0 after losing 7-5 to the Nogales’ top player.