Mustangs’ win ties them with Highlands for fourth in 28-4A
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More than mere revenge was at stake Friday when Jefferson took on Highlands at Mary Ann Villarreal Field No. 2.
The Mustangs (8-9, 4-5) wanted payback for their March 7 loss to Highlands (7-10, 4-5), but they stood to gain something more valuable. With a commanding 11-1 victory, Jefferson tied the Owls for fourth place in District 28-4A with just three games remaining.
The top four finishers in each district qualify for the postseason. Brennan (18-3, 9-0) has clinched a playoff berth and Edison (9-11, 7-1) has all but locked up another. Brackenridge (13-9-1, 5-3) is in third place and holds a two-game lead on the Mustangs and Owls.
“We’ve all come together this year, better than any other season,” Jefferson senior pitcher Mary Loera said. “We wanted to win tonight and try to get into the playoffs.”
Both senior-dominated teams understandably have their sights set on qualifying. Jefferson wants to keep its streak alive after making the cut last year. Highlands hasn’t made the playoffs for about 10 years.
“Essentially, it’s about the same team,” Highlands coach Tracy Guadarrama said, comparing this year’s squad to her 2013 team. “Things have kind of clicked for them. They’re tougher mentally. They have more confidence in themselves and a stronger belief they can win.”
The Owls won the first meeting against Jefferson 16-8 on March 7.
“Last time, we came in on a high,” Jefferson coach Jennifer Gomez said. “We were really coming off a big win over Lanier and good game against Brennan. Last time, they just blew us away because we came in with too much confidence.
“This time we were more relaxed but, also, with more (determination) to win.”
It was a battle of twoteams with a sizable emotional investment in qualifying for the playoffs this year. Jefferson, remarkably, has 10 seniors on its roster. Highlands has six.
Highlands took a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Jessica Garza led off the inning with a leadoff double to the left-center field gap. Natalie Zuniga brought her home with an RBI single.
Loera retired the next 11 Owls batters in order until opposing pitcher Samantha Lopez reached base on an error in the sixth.
“Mary just kind of took control,” Gomez said.
So, too, did Jefferson’s offense.
The Mustangs scored their first two runs in the fourth when senior Melanie Sheppard hit a booming RBI double and scored on a throwing error. They added three more in the fifth, aided by three of the Owls’ eight errors and one of Becky Rodriguez’s three hits – an RBI single.
Trailing 5-1, Highlands’ problems seemed to snowball.
A single by clean-up hitter Stephanie Munoz and a pair of Mustangs errors loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth. Jefferson third baseman Amber Maldonado, who contributed two hits, threw to the plate for a force out and Loera induced a come-backer to extinguish the threat.
“I think, mostly, the girls weren’t swinging the bat,” Guadarrama said. “They were waiting too late in the count to start swinging.”
The diminutive senior kept the ball on the ground, for the most part, following a third inning in which Jefferson right fielder Christina Pedraza made two putouts and had an assist. Pedraza accounted for all three outs, including throwing out a Highlands runner at first.
“I think everything was working,” Loera said. “I was able to mix up my pitches. The inside (pitches) were what I was getting them on.”
Loera’s performance was all the more impressive, coming against a team that has scored 12 or more runs five times in 28-4A games.
“Our offense has been pretty solid,” Guadarrama said. “Defensively, we always have some errors, but our offense always seems to be able to cover them. That game, we got too far behind and there was no way to recover..”
Jefferson produced 13 hits to offset its three errors. The Mustangs’ knockout kick was a six-run sixth inning, prolonged by four Highlands errors.
“We gave them too many extra outs,” Guadarrama said.
The big hits in the Jefferson sixth were supplied by catcher Grace Chavez, who had an RBI single and shortstop Bianca Nunez, who followed it with a run-scoring triple. Nunez finished with three hits.
“We kept our mistakes down,” Gomez said. “We knew we could get base hits or put the ball in play. We wanted to make them make a play on it. If we did that, we knew we’d be able to push them to make errors.”
With such an over-abundance of seniors, Highlands’ leadership equation has potential for disaster. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the soup” might apply.
Instead, Loera sees herself and her fellow seniors as an over-sized support group.
“Basically everybody (is a leader),” Loera said. “We can all take criticism, from each and every one of us. This year, I think we’re more mature. All the seniors have come together better.”
“Each one of them contributes in her own way,” Gomez said. “Melo (Sheppard) is the outfield leader. Mary and Grace (Chavez) are the infield leaders. But they all take the leadership role, across the board.”
Highlands will, no doubt, be drawing in its leadership during the district’s stretch run.
The Owls are slated to face Lanier 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Villarreal Field No. 2. Then they’ll run the gauntlet, finishing against district-leading Brennan Friday at field No. 3 (7:15 p.m.) and third-place Brackenridge April 17.
“We’re going to have tough games,” Guadarrama said, “but we can’t worry about what (other teams) are doing. We’re capable of winning all three. It’s a matter of the determination and confidence we go into it with.”
For Jefferson to return to the playoffs, its figurative road will wind through Brackenridge 7:15 p.m. Friday on field No. 2 and second-place Edison April 17, with a stop in between to play Burbank.
After a break from 28-4A competition Tuesday, Gomez’s thoughts are on Brackenridge.
“That’s going to be the other big game we have to win,” she said. “If we can take that, for sure, we’re in the playoffs.”
Friday’s game convinced the 16th-year Jefferson coach that the Mustangs are on the right track.
“They’re playing like a team that wants to go to the next level,” Gomez said. “They’re stepping up their game and playing with confidence.”