STOCKTON – A 7-1 deficit in softball, especially during a championship game, almost predestines a loss.
No. 2 seed Central Catholic, though it rallied to within striking distance, couldn’t beat those odds Saturday in a 7-5 loss to Vista del Lago in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final.
The Raiders (26-4-1), bidding for their first title since 1995, put runners on base in the final three innings but could not deliver the game-changing hit. They watched silently while Vista (24-4-1), a 15-year-old school which will bring home to Folsom its first softball blue banner, threw its gloves skyward after the final out.
“I’m proud of the girls. We battled back,” Central Catholic coach Sam Nichols summarized. “We could have packed it in real easy. We had a chance in the end.”
Not surprisingly, the margins between these teams were slight at San Joaquin Delta College’s Bucky Layland Complex.
Vista del Lago, the No. 4 seed but confident after defeating top-seeded and previously unbeaten Vanden 3-1 last week, scored all its runs during the third and fourth innings.
Central Catholic lefty Randi Roelling, (17-3), the pitcher who got the Raiders to this stage, was one strike away from escaping the third inning with only one yielded run. Instead, Vista’s Morgan Sweet launched a three-run homer, a no-doubt rocket to left-center, to put the Eagles ahead to stay 4-1. It was her eighth homer of the season.
One inning later, the Raiders dug an even deeper hole. Roelling walked in a run, followed by a hard-hit sacrifice fly to left by Sammy Smith, who was given a second chance after a dropped foul popup.
Enter Vista senior shortstop Tayler Biehl, arguably the game’s difference-maker (2-for-4, triple, 2 runs). Biehl took third on Smith’s liner, then noticed that home plate was vacated and the ball was not returned to Roelling in the circle (which would have rendered the play over).
Alertly, Biehl raced home while almost nobody was looking. In the scorebook, it’s a steal of home. In retrospect, that two-run play made it 7-1 and decided the game.
“Earlier in the game, the same thing happened and I wasn’t paying enough attention. (This time) I was looking for something,” Biehl said. “I asked my coach (Julie Lazar), ‘Did they call timeout?’ She said, ‘I don’t know,’ so I said, ‘I’m gonna go.’"
How good is Biehl, you ask? Good enough to be the Capital Athletic League’s MVP as a freshman. Good enough to play next season for Arizona. Vista will compete at NorCals next week without Biehl, who will attend a wedding in Mexico. Her outstanding prep career is done.
“She (Biehl) is a very special athlete and person,” said Lazar, a history teacher/coach whose team made school history.
Biehl had some familiarity with Roelling in travel ball, and her ringing triple to right ignited Vista’s four-run third. The Eagles laid off Roelling’s lethal riser just enough to extend at-bats and sustain rallies.
Roelling, who blanked Vista the final three innings to give CC a chance, struck out 10. She fanned 15 during the Raiders’ 3-1 semifinal win over Valley Oak League rival Oakdale.
“They’re a good team, but that wasn’t my ‘A’ game,” Roelling said. “I made adjustments toward the end. They hit well and they made the plays when we hit to them.”
Central Catholic cut into the deficit via a 2-run homer to right by sophomore Emori Machado in the fourth. The Raiders closed to 7-5 in the fifth on a run-scoring single by Jazzelyn Rios and an RBI groundout by Noelany Ramirez. Vista second baseman Rubie Kelly, one of the team’s three seniors, dove to her left to make the play.
The rest of the numbers add up to regret for CC. The Raiders outhit Vista 9-5 and stranded nine. Winning pitcher Charlize Cai (10-2) struck out only four and walked five but benefitted from two ground-ball double plays.
It looked good for the Raiders early. They took a 1-0 lead in the first when senior Adison Machado doubled and scored on a stolen base and a throwing error while Roelling walked.
“We hit a lot of balls hard,” Nichols said. “You can’t control it.”
Central Catholic will find out Sunday about its opponent and destination for Tuesday’s NorCal first round.