Escalon’s road to repeat as Section champions was not without its bumps … but the varsity softball girls prevailed and came away with the Division 5 blue banner on Saturday, May 19.
It was the second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section title for the girls and they used some timely hitting and a 14-strikeout performance from senior Chardae Hoskins to get the job done in the finale.
The victory was even sweeter on Saturday, coming against Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar, a team they had defeated twice in league play and once already in the playoffs.
After their opening round win on the home field against Waterford by a 4-0 final on Monday, May 14, the varsity squad met the Lady Yellowjackets in second round action on Wednesday, May 16 at Arnaiz Softball Complex in Stockton. There, it was a solid 9-1 win for the Lady Cougars. Keys in that game were Bella Strach belting a pair of two-run homers for a four-RBI day; Hailie Webster with a double and two runs driven in; Lia Babasa with a double and an RBI.
“It was a 14-hit attack,” head coach Art Brooks said of the game against Hilmar. “Chardae Hoskins started on the mound, Molly Brown came on in relief.”
That win put top-ranked Escalon into a Thursday game against number two seed Linden on Thursday.
The Lady Lions appeared destined to send Escalon to a loss, taking control of the game and their starting left-handed pitcher keeping the Lady Cougar hitters off balance. Multiple first swings resulted in harmless pop ups for Escalon and they found themselves trailing by a score of 6-1 in the late innings.
Though they battled, they just couldn’t find a way to get much going against Linden.
In the top of the seventh, the Linden pitcher was at the plate and attempted to put the bat on the ball, bunting at a high pitch when the ball glanced off the bat and struck her in the left hand. Though she went back out to the mound to start the bottom of the seventh, she was unable to continue.
Escalon seized that opportunity.
“They saw that starting pitcher go down, got some hope,” Brooks said of his team getting the chance to face off against a new Linden pitcher.
After one out, and still down by five runs, the dugout broke out the rally caps and started getting noisy, the energy contagious as the Lady Cougars found their groove and starting sending balls all over the field.
“We got a couple of runners on; sometimes that’s all it takes,” Brooks added.
The hitting was contagious, the runs started to pile up and before the dust cleared, the defending champions had roared all the way back to tie the game at 6-6.
With a runner on second, the final out of the seventh was made so the Thursday contest went into extra innings.
The teams then battled through a scoreless eighth and ninth inning. The international tie-breaker rule came into play in the tenth, with a runner starting at second. Linden got a run across in the top of the tenth and Escalon equaled that in the bottom of the inning. In the top of the 11th Linden could not get their runner home and Escalon again seized the moment, a bunt from Babasa moving runner Sage Davis from second to third and then Hoskins coming up with the game-winning hit for a thrilling 8-7 Escalon win.
“It just felt amazing,” Hoskins said of driving in the winning run.
She added that while she struggled on the mound, her teammates were always supportive.
“They are there to pick up me up and have my back,” she said. “Down 6-1, we just kept it rolling.”
Linden had to double back and play Hilmar on Thursday night for the right to advance to the final and battled but fell in an 8-4 decision to the fifth ranked Yellowjackets, setting up the all-TVL final at Arnaiz on Saturday.
For the title, Hilmar would have had to defeat Escalon twice on Saturday, while the Lady Cougars needed just one victory to repeat as champions.
They came to play, sensing the opportunity to make it a one and done day for Hilmar to bring home the banner.
Hoskins took the ball and though she often found herself in tight situations, came through with a shutout, thanks to more than a dozen strikeouts and some solid defense behind her. A catch by Babasa in left field, coming in to grab a sinking line drive early in the game with runners on base to keep Hilmar off the scoreboard, was key, keeping the momentum in Escalon’s favor.
Hilmar threatened in the first inning, with a walk and an error putting runners on second and third with no outs. After falling behind 3-0 to the next batter, Hoskins then settled in and set down three straight via the strikeout to end the threat.
“She likes to go full count a lot and make everybody nervous,” Brooks said of his pitcher.
The Lady Cougars scored two runs in the first, two runs in the second and added two more insurance runs in the fifth.
Strach rapped out a two-RBI double in the first, while Morgan Reider had an RBI double and Hannah Boyd had an RBI single in the second inning. After a double from Strach and an intentional walk to Brown with one out in the fifth, they pulled off a double steal to put runners on second and third. After a strikeout, Lexy Underwood came up with a two-strike single to right field to drive home the insurance runs.
Hilmar tried to mount a rally in the final inning but it fell short. The first batter went out quickly on a grounder to second, then Hoskins stabbed a line drive comebacker, throwing her glove up to protect herself and making the catch. A liner to left field that fell in by the next hitter, followed by a walk, put runners on first and second with two outs. But the next batter hit a line drive that Hoskins gobbled up for the final out to secure the Section title.
“I knew we had the capability,” said Brooks as he was presented with the blue banner and hoisted it for his team. “We just had to keep them focused.”
He noted the graduation of three senior leaders from last year’s Section title team and said the big question to start this season was who was going to step up to lead. The girls came together as a whole, he said, with everyone being supportive and moving the team toward its goals.
Caitlin Brooks again served as assistant coach with Haley Boyd joining in toward the end of the season after completing her first year of college.
“The deeper we got into the season, we had hope,” Brooks added. “It starts with chemistry and you go from there.”