Trinity Preston hit a monster solo home run in the bottom of the fifth inning on Friday to break a late tie and lead the McKinleyville Panthers to a 3-2 victory over Fort Bragg and a second straight North Coast Section Division-4 championship.
It was another close game for the McKinleyville girls, who won all three of their playoff games by a single run, but this resilient group of players have made a habit of stepping up clutch and finding a way to prevail.
Preston epitomized that never-say-die spirit on Friday, despite playing the game sick.
“She somehow mustered enough energy to hit one out,” head coach Shanna McCracken said. “That took everything she had and it speaks volumes for how this team is. They’re never going to give up.”
The section championship is the third all-time for the Mack girls, who stretched their NCS winning streak to six straight games and successfully defended the championship they won in 2019, which was the last time the playoffs were held.
Senior Allie Egbert is the lone holdover from the 2019 team and she secured a rare second NCS winners medal.
But the fact that the Panthers have now won two straight NCS titles with two very different rosters speaks volumes for the job McCracken and assistant coach Drew Riddle have done with this program, which is now the most successful in the Big 5 when it comes to the NCS.
“It means a lot,” McCracken said. “It’s nice to have a consistent team of girls that are willing to battle the way these girls do.”
Several of the 2019 players were on hand on Friday to cheer on this year’s team.
“It means a lot to all of them,” McCracken said. “And it kind of shows the family aspect of what we’re trying to build at McKinleyville.”
With senior pitcher Raina Ausburn keeping the Fort Bragg bats in check early on, the Panthers took the lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Camryn Pinard and Preston hit back-to-back singles to lead off, and with one out the red-hot Taya Gomes hit a single up the middle to open the home team’s account.
Pinard, Preston and Gomes would each finish 2-for-3, including a double for Gomes, who now has five base hits in her last six at-bats over two playoff games.
Mashell Stumpf also was 2-for-3 with a triple, while Egbert and Bailee Box each had a single to round out a 10-hit team performance.
Ausburn has been very impressive in the circle through the playoff run and that continued on Friday.
The senior standout, who will play at Mendocino College next year, allowed just four hits and two walks and struck out 13.
“She pitched really well,” McCracken said. “Their batters made adjustments and she had to make adjustments, and she worked through it.”
The Panthers doubled their lead in the bottom of the third inning but the Timberwolves scored twice in the top of the fifth to tie things up, before Preston’s big blast in the bottom half of the inning.
McCracken also praised her players for keeping their heads in the game and not allowing what she described as unsportsmanlike comments from some of the Fort Bragg players and fans get to them.
“It was poor sportsmanship,” she said. “You’ve just got to play your game and not worry about it.”
The win was the 20th of the season for the 20-7 Panthers, who will now advance to next week’s NorCal Regional playoffs.
They will find out their seed and opponent on Sunday evening, and McCracken is hoping for at least one home game when the inaugural tournament gets under way on Tuesday.