Dragons earn first Elite Eight berth
Photos taken by KJ Toso. For more photos or to purchase photos, please visit: http://kjtoso.photoshelter.com
PLEASE FOLLOW THIS LINK TO THE SOUTHSIDE REPORTER WEBSITE:
The deeper a team goes into the postseason, the more important the mental aspect of the game becomes.
Southwest (33-9) has mastered the process after six years of playoff appearances under coach Sandy Hernandez. The senior-laden Dragons demonstrated as much this weekend by winning a pressure-packed, best-of-three Class 5A regional semifinal series against San Benito (27-6) at Texas A&M-Kingsville.
After winning the series opener 7-2 Friday, the Dragons overcame a 5-1 deficit to post a 9-6 victory Saturday afternoon. The sweep made them the first Southwest team to advance to the Region IV finals and become one of the state’s final eight.
“That’s one thing I’ve worked on since 2009,” Hernandez said of improving her team’s mental toughness. “I’ve tried to study and figure out the mental part.
“It’s not that I did, but I think they finally figured it out.”
Many of the current Dragons played on Southwest Pony League’s three national championship teams during their early teen years.
“This is a different level,” Hernandez said. “They had success in their youth league, so they knew how to do it.. They just had to figure out how to do it in high school.”
Southwest advanced to play San Marcos (32-9) in the regional championship. The Rattlers swept their semifinal series against Eagle Pass with two one-run victories. Hernandez said series details would be determined Monday.
“They have a great pitcher,” Hernandez said. “We’ll have to figure that out.”
San Benito was the perfect semifinal foil for the Dragons for two reasons.
The Greyhounds, who were making their seventh Sweet 16 appearance, reached the destination in 2013 that Southwest is steering toward – the state finals. The other reason it was a compelling matchup was that San Benito eliminated the Dragons twice in previous years, including 2011 when the current seniors were freshmen.
“We wanted revenge,” said Southwest senior center fielder Liz Phillips, who broke out of a slump by hitting a game-clinching home run Friday.
“I’m glad we got it.”
As befitting the Greyhounds’ pedigree, San Benito didn’t make it easy.
Three walks and an RBI double from Dorothy Millan to the left-center field gap made it 2-0 before the Dragons came up to bat.
Southwest cut the deficit in half in its half of the first. Kristal Salinas (3-for-5, RBI) and Phillips (2-for-3, RBI) provided the spark with base hits. Senior third baseman Kayla Arguello loaded the bases on a catcher’s interference call.
Kamerie Vidales’ grounder brought in one Dragons run, but Southwest left two on base in the first and three more in the second.
Three Southwest errors combined with two more walks to help San Benito sculpt a 5-1 lead in the third inning.
Fortunately for the Dragons, the Greyhounds also were in a generous mood.
San Benito committed three errors in the bottom of the third as Southwest responded with a seven-run outburst. The rally included a game-changing, three-run home run from senior catcher Gabby Flores.
“When Gabby hit that home run,” Arguello said, “it gave everyone confidence, not just me.”
Flores’ blast meant that the Dragons had hit home runs in eight of its nine postseason games. Realistically, though, it carried much more significance. It was the assurance that the Dragons could vanquish San Benito – and wouldn’t need another game to accomplish it.
“One of our goals was to try to do it in two (games),” Hernandez said. “We couldn’t go three against that kind of quality team. It was great to see my team succeed..”
The Greyhounds hadn’t committed an error in the first two innings, after having an outbreak in Game 1. However, their second error of the inning gave Southwest its first lead of the afternoon.
Salinas’ go-ahead RBI single was misplayed for a two-base error. With the junior at third base, Phillips delivered an opposite-field single that put the Dragons ahead 7-5.
Arguello followed with a double that hit the base of the center-field fence, below 225-foot sign at Vernie and Blanche Hubert Field.
“Every time I go up to bat,” she said, “I’m really not hitting for myself. I’m trying to get my teammates an RBI so they can score.”
The blast increased Southwest’s lead to three runs and prompted San Benito’s 17th-year coach Elias Martinez to hand the ball to senior Amber Jasso, the winning pitcher in both 2011 games, in relief of starter Crystal Castillo. Jasso hadn’t pitched in about a month.
“I told the girls to be ready for Jasso,” the Southwest coach said. “As a coach, that was the right move. She did the job the first three or four innings against us, but we finally got one (run)..”
Southwest junior Caitlin Terrazas had already relieved Vidales. The two pitchers stemmed the tide of runs.
Terrazas allowed only a one-out home run to San Benito’s Melanie Gonzalez in the fifth. She pitched out of the inning, leaving three Greyhounds on base and squelching their best chance for a comeback victory.
In the sixth, she had help from an amazing catch that prevented a hit.
Backpedaling to the outfield grass on a pop fly, Salinas snared the ball, but it popped out of her glove. Fortunately for the Dragons, left fielder Amanda Sanchez – one of the heroes of Game 1 – backed up the play and caught the ball in the air, as in a football tip drill.
“We made some mistakes, and they took advantage,” Martinez said. “I’m proud of my girls because they kept battling. They left it all on the field.
“We went up against a great ballclub. Southwest made some mistakes, too. It’s two great teams going at it, and they came out on top.”
In its last at-bat, Southwest picked up a valuable insurance run.
“The difference was that we struggled offensively,” Martinez said, comparing this year’s series to the 2011 series. “Southwest’s offense is really tough – and we weren’t equal to it.”
With two outs in the sixth, Flores and Miranda Gonzales lined back-to-back base hits. Gonzales came through on full count to drive in the clinching run.
“We’ve all been together since we were very young,” Arguello said. “I think we’re different than any other team, because no one else ha s been together that long. I think we want it more. We want to get where we need to be.”
The mission Arguello referred to was getting to the state tournament, which may be two wins away.
“I think, now that we’ve proved who we are and what we can be,” Arguello said, “next year, when we’re not here, those girls will be able to do the exact same thing.”
One thing is for sure, they’ve seen the process in action.
Southwest carries a six-game winning streak into its best-of-three regional semifinal series against San Marcos. All three games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
The first game will take place Thursday at the Northeast ISD softball complex. Game 2 is set for Friday at Mary Ann Villarreal Field No. 1 at Burbank High School. If necessary, the third game will be played at St. Mary’s Unviersity’s new field.