By Ray Hamill — Just when her team needed it the most, senior center fielder Jada Bailey made one of the best defensive plays of the season on Friday evening.
With Cardinal Newman threatening in the top of the seventh inning, Bailey made a spectacular diving catch for the final out, preventing the tying run from reaching home plate and lifting the McKinleyville Panthers to a hard-fought 3-1 win.
The victory keeps a thrilling season going for the Mack girls and sets up a North Coast Section Division-IV championship showdown with St. Patrick-St. Vincent on Tuesday.
Afterwards head coach Shanna McCracken admitted she didn’t know Bailey had made the catch.
“Honestly, I didn’t think she had the ball,” McCracken said. “I was waiting to see it roll behind her. But I was so proud of her. It was really nice to end the game that way.”
Bailey’s heroics came at a time when the Panthers were looking nervous as a dangerous Cardinals team began to build some momentum on a two-out rally.
Two base hits and a McKinleyville error put the visitors on the board and gave them two runners on, before Bailey’s big play ended the threat.
Had the ball slipped past her, both runners would likely have scored.
“I can’t say enough about how hard the girls played today,” McCracken said. “They went all out the whole time. They executed very well, and there were a lot of diving plays, which was very good to see.”
While Bailey had the standout play, she was far from the only hero on a group of players that once again epitomized the team concept, with some great pitching, plenty of defense and some clutch hitting from throughout the lineup.
Seven players combined for the Panthers’ 10 hits.
McKinleyville took the lead in the bottom of the first inning, wasting little time setting the tone.
Lead-off hitter Lexi White singled to reach base and was then advanced all the way to third on a Jaycee Morais base hit.
White then scored when Morais was caught in a rundown between first and second, which she managed to escaped with some athletic moves.
The early lead could have been bigger, but the Panthers left the bases loaded.
Both teams had their chances to score, leaving a combined 19 runners on base for the game, but it remained 1-0 until the bottom of the fourth.
With one out, Grace Rosebrook and White hit back-to-back singles, before Morais hit a bunt single to score one run, and then a second scored on a wild throw.
White, Morais and Lily Thiesfeld each finished with two hits in the win, as the Panthers improved to 22-3, while teammates Olivia Alves, McKenna Turner, McKenzie Gonsalves and Rosebrook each also had a hit.
And it was that total team effort and support that most impressed the coach.
“I’ve said it all year, if one girl doesn’t get the job done, the next one does,” McCracken said. “They just are experts at picking each other up at this point. I’m just very proud of the girls.”
Gonsalves pitched the win and turned in another strong playoff performance, allowing eight hits in a complete game, while striking out eight.
Cardinal Newman closes out 20-5.
The trip to the NCS decider is the first since 2011 for the Panthers, who last won a section crown in 1988.
The Big 5 has only ever won an NCS title in softball on two prior occasions, with Del Norte also winning in 2008.