Even the best teams don’t play their “A” game every time they step onto the field. But more often than not, they still find a way to win.
So it was for the Hollister High softball team, who admittedly wasn’t at its sharpest in a 2-0 win over Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills in a CIF NorCal Regional Division I playoff quarterfinal opener on Tuesday.
The top-seed Haybalers (28-3), newly cemented as the No. 1 team in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, play host to No. 4 seed Whitney of Rocklin in the semifinals Thursday at 4pm.
Whitney pounded Mitty 9-3 in its quarterfinal and went 2-1 vs. Oak Ridge this season, so the Haybalers know they’ll have to be at their best to advance in NorCals from here on out.
And they have plenty to play for.
Having already made history by beating the top two West Catholic Athletic League schools en route to the Central Coast Section Open Division championship, Hollister can further burnish its legacy by winning NorCals.
If the Balers do that, they would finish No. 1 in the state for the first time in program history and could make a solid case for being the greatest Hollister team in school history. There’s still plenty of softball to be played before that happens, of course, starting with getting in rhythm again after an emotional CCS title run.
Even though CIF NorCals combine all the section champions into one bracket, for a team coming off a section championship like Hollister, there’s a natural tendency to have a bit of a letdown. Especially for a Haybalers squad that downed St. Francis in front of a lively crowd at West Valley College just three days prior.
“For us it [NorCals] was a little bit slower,” Hollister ace Sophia Mariottini said. “We kind of came in with that confident mentality that we’ve had, but we couldn’t really adjust to their pitching. But in the end, we pulled through.”
Thanks in large part to Mariottini, who nearly threw a no-hitter in pitching her second consecutive shutout. Mariottini allowed just two infield singles, and one of them—an infield pop-up that simply dropped because of miscommunication between her and second baseman Ashlee Io—should’ve been caught.
The other infield hit was a hard-struck groundball that just got under the glove of third baseman Hannah Sanchez with two outs in the top of the sixth inning. Other than that, the Oak Ridge hitters only squared up a couple of balls, all of which occurred in the final inning.
Mariottini, the Molloy University (New York)-signee, relied on a similar formula for success: pounding the corners and utilizing a heavy dose of screwballs and curveballs.
“Usually I’m trying to work heavy on my corners so today was the same thing,” she said. “I was trying to bring the ball inside so they can pop it up a bit.”
Hollister scored a run in the second on an Oak Ridge error and another run in the sixth. Sanchez drew a walk with one out, advanced to second base on Mariottini’s fielder’s choice and scored on Lauryn McShane’s single.
The Balers finally got the clutch hit they were looking for, as up until McShane’s single they were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Hollister finished with just five hits but a superb outing from Mariottini, speed on the basepaths and tremendous defense keyed the victory.
Shortstop Mia Philips, a Cal commit, showed cat-quick reflexes when a bouncing ground ball deflected off the glove of Mariottini with two outs in the top of the sixth. What would be a difficult play for most Philips made look easy, as she calmly retrieved the ball and in one swoop motion fired to first base for the out.
Right fielder Kyla Hignel also made an impact with her glove and speed. The sophomore made a nice running catch along the foul line for the first out in the bottom of the fourth. In the second, it was Hignel’s speed that forced the Oak Ridge third baseman to rush her throw for an error, allowing Laila Rueda to score.
If Hollister beats Whitney, a rematch with St. Francis is probable. The Lancers won their quarterfinal game 10-0 and are no doubt chomping at the bit for a title game rematch with the Balers. Both teams need to take care of business on Thursday for that game to materialize, however.
Whatever happens, Hollister knows what’s at stake if it can win two more games and finish the season 30-3.
“It would be amazing for us to do that and finish No. 1 in the state,” Mariottini said.