Six years ago I moved to San Antonio from the Chicago area.
I’m glad I didn’t move here five years ago. I would have hated to miss a year of growth in Southwest’s program.
My arrival coincided with Southwest alumnae Sandy Hernandez taking the helm at her alma mater. Although the Dragons won a district title in her first season, it has been an intriguing progression to watch.
All things considered, it’s not surprising to see Southwest advance to the Region IV finals this spring – as one of eight high school teams still playing softball in Texas.
What distinguishes this team from previous Dragons squads that may have fashioned a better record at the district level or a slightly glossier overall won-loss mark?
The simple answer is its hitting, but the less obvious rationale explains it better.
This group, with five seniors who’ve accumulated 20 years on the varsity – including four-year starters Kamerie Vidales and Liz Phillips – has the experience to cover its errors and battle back from deficits. The teams from 2010 and 2011 may have been slightly more consistent, but they weren’t quite as finely honed in their ability to manufacture big innings that either seize control of the game early or once-and-for-all wrest control of it late.
Last Saturday in the Region IV semifinal, I had the good fortune to sit next to Texas A&M-Kingsville assistant softball coach Carter McBurnett at Vernie and Blanche Hubert Field, where the Javelinas play. He was impressed with Southwest’s ability to consistently produce quality at-bats.
Southwest annually has been one of the best hitting teams in the San Antonio metro area under Hernandez, but not every Dragons teams has been as adept at all aspects of the skill as the 2014 group.
It’s easy to focus on the longball. Southwest, after all, has hit home runs in eight of the nine postseason games it’s played this year. The Dragons lost their only homerless game to Judson, six-consecutive wins ago.
In the midst of the dramatics – like Phillips’ two-run shot last Friday or Gabby Flores’ 3-run homer last Saturday or Vidales’ two-homer outing that clinched the Judson series – don’t lose sight of those timely singles and doubles. They’re what have made the Dragons a consistent hitting machine – a constant that tends to wear down opponents over the course of a three-game series.
As Judson discovered, a pitcher can only hope to keep Southwest’s batters off balance for so long. Try to get to cute by working the corners, and you’ll find that the Dragons also are willing to take a base on balls.
Kristal Salinas and Phillips atop the batting order always seem to be on base. Kayla Arguello, Vidales, junior power hitter Caitlin Terrazas and Flores all can put the ball over the fence. But any of the nine batters an opposing pitcher will face is capable of driving in runs.
As the Dragons have shown when they’ve fallen behind or need an insurance run, Hernandez also has prepared them to aggressively run the bases and manufacture runs. Southwest can even resort to the bunt when the need arises, although it seems contrary to their mode of operation.
While there have been occasional defensive lapses during the season, Southwest is solid defensively – particularly up the middle with Flores at catcher, Salinas at shortstop, Yanira Fernandez at second base and Phillips in center field. Those rare lapses are easily erased by making plays, or turning double plays, where other teams might not.
And, yet again, there’s the propensity to come back and score runs in bulk and in clutch situations.
Pitching is generally considered the common denominator of outstanding softball teams.
Southwest had lockdown pitching from 2009 to 2011 with Mississippi Valley State University recruit Katrisha Arocha. Arocha could be counted on to hold opponents to two runs or fewer each game.
Terrazas and Vidales haven’t quite been in that category, but they’ve been effective enough to support an offense that’s averaged more than 10 runs a game in the postseason. Even better for the Dragons, both are equally effective as a starter and a closer, so Hernandez can ride the hot hand in the pitcher’s circle.
In regional semifinal opponent San Marcos, the Dragons will face a strong pitcher in Victoria Vasquez. Has limited opponents to three runs a game, while the Rattlers’ offense has averaged six runs an outing.
What distinguishes the Rattlers is the fact that they’re unbeaten in six postseason games. Four of their last five games have been decided by exactly one run.
Obviously, San Marcos is a mentally tough team. That’s hardly a shocker in the Elite Eight round.
It will be interesting to see how the Rattlers fare against a Southwest team that’s downright scary offensively and, as Hernandez says, simply refuses to lose. The team that proves itself to be more relentless likely will be the one that advances to the state tournament.
With a resume that includes three national youth-league championships, players who’ve won or shared four district titles (including this season, when District 28-5A was at its strongest) and the confidence that comes with playing its best softball at the right time, Southwest has to like its chances.