SAN JOSE — Somewhere the members of Watsonville High’s 2006 and 2000 softball teams are smiling. So, too, are the 1984 San Lorenzo Valley High Cougars, the ‘89 and ‘98 Monte Vista Christian Mustangs, the 2012 Soquel High Knights and the ‘15 Scotts Valley High Falcons.
This was for the seven teams from Santa Cruz County that came so close to tasting delicious victory only to be fed the stomach-wrenching dish of defeat.
This was for the dozens of other county teams that were bounced from the playoffs in the opening rounds by powerhouses from the Silicon Valley and Monterey County year after year.
But above all else, Saturday’s Central Coast Section Division I Championship was for the 2017 Watsonville Wildcatz. It was for seniors Liyah Lopez and Nicole Wilson, who have played together since they were 4. It was for sophomore pitcher Jessica Rodriguez, who out-dueled one of the top pitchers to ever come through Northern California in Pioneer High’s Holly Azevedo just two days before. It was for freshman Angelina Heredia, who stepped up with her biggest hit of the year on the biggest stage possible. It was for the dozens of parents, friends, teachers and fans that packed PAL stadium in San Jose. And it was for head coach Scott Wilson, who in three years turned a program that was an afterthought into a title contender.
“I’m still out of breath,” said coach Wilson, whose black and gold polo was still soaked minutes after a surprise celebratory ice water bath. “I’m trying to find the words.”
Here are two: CCS Champions.
No. 4 Watsonville completed its improbable run to its first-ever CCS title, edging the No. 7-seeded Homestead High Mustangs, 3-1, for the Division I crown. It is the first section championship for any softball team from Santa Cruz County in the 42 years that the CCS has held a tournament.
Watsonville (24-4) came close in ‘06 and ‘00, losing 1-0 heartbreakers on both occasions. This time, however, the Wildcatz got it done.
“It’s history. We made it,” Rodriguez said.
The Wildcatz never had the opportunity to celebrate a championship this season — finishing second in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division behind 10-time section champ San Benito High — but looked like season veterans while celebrating after Rodriguez struck out senior Elena Murray for the final out.
Rodriguez and sophomore catcher Juliana Wilson met halfway between home plate and the pitcher’s circle for a massive hug reminiscent of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner’s embrace after Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. The rest of the players from the infield formed a mosh pit around Lopez as the outfielders rushed in to join and the bench inside the dugout emptied.
“This means everything,” said Lopez, who had tears streaming down her face during the championship trophy presentation. “We’ve all worked so hard and I’ve seen this team grow through so much. I was crying more because this is going to be my last time on the field with all of them.”
Lopez scored Watsonville’s third and final run of the day in what stood as the game-winning, two-run fourth inning.
Heredia’s RBI double scored Juliana Wilson, who reached on a walk, and a few seconds later a throwing error from the Homestead (20-10) catcher allowed Lopez to race home and make it 3-0.
Rodriguez then wiggled her way out of jams in the fifth and seventh innings to clinch the title.
Homestead — a second-place finisher in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s De Anza division — had a pair of runners in scoring position with one out during the fifth but the UNLV-committed pitcher mowed down the next two batters with a pair of strikeouts.
The Mustangs finally got on the board in the seventh on Julie Davis’s RBI double with one out but, again, Rodriguez answered the call with back-to-back strikeouts to end the game and send the pro-Watsonville crowd into mass hysteria.
“[Rodriguez] is amazing and she always somehow comes through,” Heredia said. “She can be down and she can have runners on but she always come through with strike outs or we’ll get little plays to our infield. She steps up when it matters.”
Rodriguez had 14 strikeouts but was not unhittable, missing her spots at moments and allowing eight hits. She also hit a batter.
Freshman Kelly Chu scored the Mustangs’ lone run and hit Rodriguez thrice, including a triple in the seventh inning.
Senior pitcher Brittany Prock doubled and singled off Rodriguez but couldn’t provide the much-needed hit in the fifth inning, striking out with Chu and Davis in scoring position.
Prock was not overpowering but kept the Wildcatz off-balance in the circle, allowing only three hits and one walk. The Mustangs’ errors in the third and fourth inning, however, proved costly.
Watsonville freshman Jazmyn Martinez got on base on Homestead’s first error of the day in the third and junior Savanah Quintana brought her home with an RBI double into left field after a pair of well-placed sacrifice bunts moved her over to third.
The following inning Lopez reached on an infield error, which moved Juliana Wilson from first to second, and Heredia turned on a inside fastball for her RBI double to make it 2-0. Lopez scored soon after.
Despite her big day, Heredia, who also hit a single off Prock in the second, was one of the more reserved Watsonville players during the celebration. Sure, she was smiling, hugging and high-fiving but she was also thinking about the future.
“I’m excited but I’m also trying to be composed about it because I hope in the future we can pull more of these and bring them back to Watsonville,” she said.
Watsonville will graduate five seniors from its roster of 17: Crystal Torres, Leah Maldonado, Victoria Moran, Nicole Wilson and Lopez.
The rest, including seven starters, will all be back for another run.
Coach Wilson said where Watsonville goes from Saturday is up to the girls and the work they put in during the offseason. But considering the effort his team put in during this year’s postseason run, which included a 10-inning upset of top-seeded Pioneer in Thursday’s semifinal, the future looks bright.
“I told the girls at the beginning of the playoffs that I’m proud beyond belief from the bottom of my heart and whatever we do from here is just icing on the cake,” the coach said, fighting back tears. “They took it. First round, second round, third round and they got to the finals. It’s one game at a time. I told them today was just one more game to play. It’s our last game of the season but it’s just one more game to play. Go out there and play it to the best that you can because there is no tomorrow. Let’s finish it strong.”
They did. For themselves and the ones that came before them.