By Ray Hamill — It was four years in the making and apparently worth every minute.
And after dispatching of St Patrick-St. Vincent in the North Coast Section Division-IV championship game on Tuesday, about the only thing that was more emphatic than the 11-1 score were the celebrations of the McKinleyville players, the majority of them seniors who have had to overcome their fair share of bumps and bruises on the way to finding success.
Most of them have been playing together for years, and now their place in history is secure.
Not only are they just the second team at Mack High to ever win a section title in softball, joining the 1988 squad, but they will go down in history as the first team on the North Coast to complete the Big 5, H-DNL tournament and NCS treble in a single season, and they will forever be the “first” team to do so.
Fittingly, they achieved it with a team-first mentality, epitomizing the concept about as well as head coach Shanna McCracken and assistant Drew Riddle could possibly have hoped for this year, with consistent contributions from throughout the lineup, both at the plate and on defense.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group to coach these past four years, and a better way to end the season,” McCracken said.
The outpouring of emotion after senior Theresia Dickey crossed home plate to end the game on the 10-run rule in the bottom of the sixth was founded on the trials of a year ago, when the Panthers saw their Big 5, H-DNL tournament and NCS hopes all crushed at the end of a hard season.
They didn’t win anything in 2018.
But they apparently took those lessons to heart, and this year they came out firing on all cylinders, playing with a determination and commitment that would not allow them to fail in their goals in 2019.
More of the same
Tuesday’s championship game was more of the same, and the No. 2 seed Panthers never appeared in danger of losing to the No. 5 Bruins, breaking open the game the second time through the lineup, and quickly pulling away after that.
McKinleyville scored three runs in the second inning and added to the lead in each inning after that, including a five-run fourth to essentially end the game as a contest.
“Their pitcher threw strikes and mixed speeds up well,” McCracken said. “We adjusted well the second time through and capitalized on their mistakes.
“Our girls are going to run the bases aggressively.”
The Panthers took full advantage of some defensive miscues by the Bruins, who had six errors for the game, scoring several of their runs on fielding errors and wild throws.
Jada Bailey got things started and finished at the plate.
Long before she drove home Dickey for the game-ending run, she hit an RBI bunt single to open the scoring in the second, driving home Ashley Ballew, who had singed to reach base and advanced all the way to third on a wild throw past first.
Bailey and Lily Thiesfeld, who had reached base on a fielding error, both scored moments later on a Grace Rosebrook single and more questionable defense, as the visitors appeared to just stand and watch while Thiesfeld ran home.
Tough as Alves
Behind the plate McKinleyville senior catcher Olivia Alves took a bat to the hand early on, but didn’t allow it take her out of the game, blasting a lead-off double in the top of the third and scoring moments later on a McKenzie Gonsalves base hit.
“I think she was in a lot more pain than she let on,” McCracken said of Alves, who is arguably the team MVP this spring. “She’s very tough. I know she’ll be the last one to tell you she needs to come out.”
Gonsalves too was inspirational in the win.
After struggling a little down the stretch of the regular season, the senior pitcher has stepped up her game for the playoffs, as the Panthers gave up just two runs combined in three NCS games.
She held the Bruins to just four hits while striking out five.
“She’s a competitor,” the head coach said of Gonsalves, a four-year starter and one of four Mack seniors who will play at College of the Redwoods next season. “She wants the ball and she’s going to give everything she’s got every time out there. And she plays with a lot of heart.”
Plenty of help
She got plenty of help from a dynamic defense, anchored by an experienced infield.
Third baseman Jaycee Morais, first baseman McKenna Turner and Rosebrook at second each will also take their game to CR next year, while junior shortstop Lexi White has been as consistent as anyone on the team for the past two seasons.
“They have a lot of experience,” McCracken said of the unit.
The Panthers scored five more runs in the bottom of the fourth, highlighted by a White triple that scored Rosebrook to get things started.
White, who also had a double, was one of seven Mack players to combine for their 12 hits, with Morais, Alves, Gonsalves and Bailey each also finishing with two hits each.
Alves had a double, while Gonsalves drove in three runs and Morais two.
Like mother, like daughter
For sophomore outfielder Ashley Ballew, the win was particularly gratifying.
Ballew follows in the footsteps of her mother, Chris McPherson, who was a member of the 1988 McKinleyville NCS winning team and who passed away when the right fielder was young.
The Panthers honored McPherson’s memory before a game earlier in the season.
The Panthers close out their historic season at 23-3, while St. Patrick-St. Vincent finishes up 18-7.