Hollister’s Grace Peffley takes a swing against St. Francis in Mountain View March 23. Photo: Chris Mora

Last year’s Hollister softball team had a spectacular and historic season. The Baler girls went 30-3, won the Central Coast Section Open Division title and a NorCal Division 1 title and were voted the top team in California. 

It marked the 13th CCS title in softball program history and the first state title for Hollister High in any sport.

This year’s squad knows it has a target on its back, as every opponent on the schedule is pointing for them.

The 2024 Balers are continuing the Hollister tradition of elite softball. The bats are humming, the pitching is solid and the defense is tight. Hollister is 11-2, with big victories over Central of Fresno 1-0 in eight innings, on the road at Clovis North 4-0, and over league rival Salinas 7-6. Central was ranked fifth in the state entering the game and Clovis North was twelfth. 

St. Francis of Mountain View, the team HHS beat for both titles last season, traveled south on March 23 and won 7-1. In league play, Monterey edged Hollister 6-4 over on the coast four days later. 

But the Balers responded like champions, shutting out Clovis North 4-0 on the road and beating rival Salinas 7-6 in a crucial league match.

“The approach is the same,” coach Andrew Barragan said. “We only lost three girls, return everyone else. We understand what we did last year, CCS, NorCal, California state team of the year. But we’re not done yet. Let’s defend our title. We’re challenging my girls to rise to the challenge, keep it going.”

The infield features Hannah Sanchez, Mia Phillips, Emma Gutierrez and Taylor Faga. The outfield includes Maddy Bermudez, Grace Peffley and Avery Chavez. 

The starting pitcher this year is Johnny Casares, a transfer from Notre Dame Salinas whose family moved to town. She throws to catcher Dom Oliveira. 

Hollister High’s Mia Phillips tags a St. Francis runner in the Balers’ March 23 game. Photo: Chris Mora

The bench is deep with Kyla Hignel, Bianca Guerra, Lauryn McShane and others. Eliana Hatchett will also pitch, though Casares will be in the circle most of the innings. 

“Mia Phillips is our shortstop,” Barragan said. “She is our best defender out there. At catcher, Dom Oliveira really came into her own. She has one of the best arms in CCS. Nobody steals on her. Taylor Faga is at first. She is a power hitter and was state freshman of the year last year. Maddie Bermudez is our leadoff batter. She sets the tone for all of us. Emma Gutierrez is our clean up batter. We set the table for her. She is a great defensive player.”

Several of the Balers are set to graduate and play in college next year. Phillips is going to Cal, Oliveira to St. Mary’s, Bermudez to Cal Poly and Gutierrez to Loyola Marymount.

In an early-season trip to the Central Valley, Hollister beat Clovis West 12-2, Arroyo Grande 8-0 and Oakdale 4-1. Phillips collected nine hits in nine plate appearances over the three games and knocked in 10 runs. Peffley had six hits in 10 at-bats and Casares picked up all three wins.

Pacific Coast Athletic League, Gabilan Division action began and early results have the trio of 5-1 Salinas, 4-0 Monterey and 5-1 Hollister at the top. The Balers have beaten North Monterey County 11-1, Notre Dame Salinas 14-1, Everett Alvarez 5-0 and North Salinas 12-0, fell to Monterey and then topped Salinas.

Against NMC, Hollister erupted in the third inning with five runs and run-ruled the Condors in an 11-1 five-inning win. 

“I think we did really well,” Phillips said. “We’ve been working to bond together. I think we can win it again with our bats, our defense and our pitching.”

In her home debut for the Balers, Casares gave up no hits and struck out five in three innings, with Hatchett finishing up.

“I was really excited to come to our house, with the big crowd,” Casares said. “The team’s really bonded. I was excited to compete out here. I’m really excited for this season.”

In the 14-1 rout of Notre Dame Salinas, Bermudez rapped out four hits and stole two bases. Casares shut out Alvarez. Peffley had three hits and a steal and scored three times in the smashing of North Salinas.

Balers’ catcher Dominique Oliveira makes a play a the plate against St. Francis on March 23. Photo: Chris Mora

In a non-league battle with Central, Casares kept the Grizzlies’ bats contained and the Balers won 2-1 by scoring the winning run in the eighth frame.

“It’s always a good game against Central,” Bermudez said. “This game showed how good a pitcher Johnny is.”

The Balers trailed 1-0 and then tied it on a Phillips hit in the fifth inning.

“Johnny kept us in position to win the game,” Barragan said. “She battled. This team never gets down. We have firepower and we know our bats are going to come.”

In the eighth, Oliviera drew a four-pitch walk and pinch-runner Hignel took it from there. She stole second easily. Central pitcher Shaya Baldwin got a bit wild and the Baler junior took third on a wild pitch, then scored on another.

“When I saw it get past the catcher, I ran fast,” Hignel said. “We are coached to run when we see that. It felt awesome to score. That was like hitting a homer for me.”

The Balers hit a rough patch, beginning with a visit from the revenge-minded Lancers on March 23. Texas A&M-bound Kate Munnerlyn, the pitcher defeated by Hollister in both the CCS and NorCal title games last year, had her off-speed pitch working and kept the Balers at bay. 

Hollister did tally five hits and with walks, ended up leaving eight runners on base. But only one touched home and the Lancers prevailed, charged up by a three-run top of the first in a 7-1 loss.

“We never recovered after the first inning,” Barragan said. “Our team is not used to losing. We won 19 in a row before this loss.”

In a back-and-forth battle four days later, Monterey upended Hollister 6-4. Maddy Bermudez had three doubles and Faga and Phillips had multiple hits. But Monterey’s Taylor Page walloped a three-run homer and Denae Lee had three hits.

The rebound began with the trip to Clovis to face the 11-3 Broncos on April 3. A two-run first inning set the tone and a shutout from Casares on the mound produced an impressive 4-0 victory. The Balers ripped 12 hits, with multiple knocks from Peffley, Faga and Oliveira.

Back home on April 5 against Salinas, Hollister jumped out to a 5-0 lead after three innings, saw the Cowboys rally back to a 6-6 tie and then the Balers pushed across the winner in the eighth. Peffley, Phillips and Oliveira each had three hits. That win was crucial to even out the PCAL Gabilan race.

“We understand the glitz and the glory but we’re not done yet,” Barragan said. “We have a target on our back. But let’s defend our title. We have six seniors who would like to go out with a bang.”

The second half of the league round-robin schedule will be challenging. Feature games are April 30 versus Monterey and May 2 at Salinas. CCS playoffs are May 18-25, and NorCal play is scheduled for May 28-June 1.

Hollister’s Emma Gutierrez catches a fly ball against St. Francis in Mountain View March 23. Photo: Chris Mora
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