By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A string of league success and playoff frustration has Maria Carrillo’s senior laden softball squad hungry for a strong season.
Posting a North Bay League opening victory Thursday over Casa Grande puts the Pumas on that path. Standout pitching by returning ace Robin Johnson and an offensive spark from Megan August were big reasons for Maria Carrillo’s 5-2 win.
“We all had the same goal. We wanted to come out and show we’re ready,” August said.
Lacking a similar sense of urgency, Casa Grande lost an early lead and couldn’t answer despite escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams.
“We didn’t have much energy. But this one’s behind us,” said Heather Zeep, the Gauchos’ hard-hitting shortstop.
Short memories will be important for teams to succeed in what should be a very competitive NBL race. The addition of Casa Grande and Windsor this season adds to an already strong league lineup, including traditional power Rancho Cotate, veteran Maria Carrillo, and the resurgent Santa Rosa and Cardinal Newman programs.
Teams expect more games like the Maria Carrillo-Casa Grande matchup.
Both squads put pressure on pitching and defense with disciplined plate appearances and aggressive base running. Each team only had a single one-two-three inning.
The outcome largely was decided when the Pumas took advantage of a rare error and the Gauchos did not.
“We can hit. We just need more timely hitting,” August said.
After the Gauchos scratched out a second inning run, the Pumas struck early and often for a big third inning.
Following a leadoff August drive to right field, an error put a pair of runners on base. With one out, third baseman Rochelle Schulze singled up the middle to get the Pumas even.
A walk loaded the bases and the bags remained full on a run-scoring single by catcher Hannah Chew.
One of Maria Carrillo’s smallest players had the game’s biggest hit. Second baseman Mariah Gabriel cleared the bases with a double to the left-field fence.
Casa Grande had its best chance against Johnson in the following frame.
A one-out walk and throwing error put Gauchos at second and third base. A well-placed bunt from center fielder Caitlyn Cerini drew the runner off third hoping to score on a play at first, but the throw went to third and she was caught for the second out. The rally ended on a popout.
“We’ve been doing pretty good with the bats,” Zeeb said. “We just have to take advantage of our spots.”
While neither pitcher was overpowering, both kept the game close. Johnson struck out five, but only walked a pair of batters. Courtney Ludlow — in her first year as a varsity starter — struck out seven and yielded four walks.
Defense also figures to be a strength for two of the league’s top teams.
Maria Carrillo had the better afternoon Thursday as the Pumas push for a North Coast Section playoff spot and postseason run.
“We all know what we’re capable of doing,” August said.