Area-round playoff series are not supposed to be that easy. Or course, most softball teams are not supposed to be this good.
Faced with a 24-win Rio Grande City team that led its district for most of the year, EHS barely blinked over the weekend, winning a pair to advance to the regional round of the state playoffs. EHS (now 28-3) was set to attack against San Benito in the third round this week, after having dispatched postseason foes Weslaco and Rio by a combined score of 42-8. The Lady Bobcats, enjoying by far the best season in program annals, must best another Valley squad to make it to the Sweet 16, something its city rival North has done twice.
The team’s balance is formidable, and against the playoff-tested Lady Greyhounds, it will need ever bit of the pitching and batwork that has been good enough so far.
“We are definitely going to have a tough series against San Benito,” said Coach Jesse Banda after Saturday’s 8-3 home win capped the series following an 8-0 victory Friday on the road. “That means putting the bunts down and doing the little things, because runs will be at a premium this round.”
For a team that has averaged 10 runs per game in 2010, the chance to square off with all-star Cheryl Vazquez is a challenge and an opportunity. She allowed nothing Saturday in two shutout wins over San Antonio Southwest as San Benny (23-5) came from a game down to advance. She is one of the Valley’s best hurlers, perhaps the best.
The lineup she will face this week, however, is solid 1 through 9, as shown in the Lady Rattler series. Catcher Deidre Tafolla, who began the year on fire but cooled somewhat, swatted five hits in two games and gives the group an eighth hitter who makes contact and can drive in runs.
Ninth hitter Kassy Rodriguez would be the leadoff girl for many Valley programs, and though she’s struggling with a knee injury right now, the outfielder should be ready to rock and roll by the weekend, as will third baseman Tori DeLeon, who came out of the Rio series a bit banged up.
After Sammy Arciba hurled a no-hitter in Game One, she came back in the second match to relieve a mildly ineffective Myranda Hinojosa in the fourth and carry the standard home. Those two freshman pitchers will be on center stage against San Benito, which defeated Edinburg North in bi-district, with Vazquez surrendering just one run in two outings. It is not a terrific hitting machine, but its execution if flawless.
If EHS is to keep the season alive, pitching and defense will be important; but with the awesome arm of Vazquez waiting in the wings, it will be the Lady ‘Cat offense that will be most sternly tested.
That means leadoff hitter Leeanne Hinojosa slapping her way on, with a bevy of sluggers seeking to move her around. Against Rio, Anissa Gonzalez plated the first run in Game Two with a first-inning single, on a 2-for-4 day. Claudia Salinas continues to produce, with two hits Saturday.
Then there’s Sarina Rios, who hammered one up and out in the second as EHS took a 4-0 lead after three and blew it open with four in the fifth. Up and down the batting card, there are girls who can stick, with second baseman Mariah Ozuna offering a possible preview of what is to come with two successful bunts in Game Two.
If Edinburg can reach Vazquez with decent regularity - and that is a giant if - it might not need to bunt. Chances are, however, we are looking at a series with low numbers all around. And Banda’s Band is ready for Small Ball.
“It’s all about execution at this stage, making the plays in the field and bunting runners over,” said the third-year mentor. “Every detail has to be right, or you will lose. We’ve gone from 15 wins my first year to 19 to what is it, 27, 28, now, and I think we can win this series.”
EHS is on a roll, as shown by the low-intensity celebration after Saturday’s clincher. True, the kids corralled Banda long enough to Gatorade him (on the second try) and there was a Silly String attack marshaled by DeLeon. But the Lady ‘Cats are not satisfied with two series wins. With a dynamite contingent, the likes of which comes around once in a blue moon, the expectations are high. THIS is the year.
“I think we deserve what we’ve accomplished so far this year,” said Tafolla, who has emerged as a very solid backstop with smarts and a serviceable arm. “We have worked hard every day and we are really happy about we’ve done so far. But we aren’t finished yet.”
She and fellow senior Rios know that as grand as the run has been so far, it all starts over against a talented and experienced Lady Greyhound unit.
“At the start of the year we all sat down and talked,” reported Rios, whose smashes at the plate are a nice complement to her deft work around the bag at first. “And we figured we’d be able to go far. We just didn’t know how far. Right now we are getting pretty good at proving people wrong, all the doubters…so we plan on doing the same thing in this series.”
NOTES: For tons of photos from the Rio series, access the Review Web site, and be looking for another story on EHS softball later in the week.