A few weeks back, when this marathon march rivaling the fabled Iditarod first began, the girls were goofing off, musing abstractly as youngsters tend to do. They eyeballed the dates for the state softball tournament, June 3-5, and one of the Lady Bobcats fantasized a bit more.

What if, by some odd chance, EHS was still alive by then? Wow, the seniors might even have to miss graduation. Eh well, forget it, doesn’t matter, they figured…never happen.

Well…

“I know it’s crazy but we were sitting around thinking that, and then the graduation got moved to the sixth,” reports Mariah Ozuna, the senior second baseman who is part of the heart and soul of a team that has climbed the dream ladder one rung at a time. They are just two series away from the Final Four summit, and the quest continues this weekend in Laredo against San Antonio Taft.

“Maybe it was a sign from God…are we going to make it to state? Hey, I tell you what, I know these girls and what they got, and I’m not saying we will. But I truly believe, and we all do, that we can go all the way. Missing graduation…that would’ve been some experience, right?”

IN YOUR FACE!

Ozuna is a hard-nosed player who reminds one of the young Pete Rose, a dusty jersey waiting for the ball with real aggression, in the field and at the plate. She has been knocking the cover off the ball in the second half of the season, bunting expertly, and as the Lady Bobcats have surged past three Valley foes into the regional semi-finals, she’s begun to dream bigger than she ever imagined possible.

“Today at practice I was almost tearing up when we were talking about all this,” she said Monday night. ‘Sarina [Rios, senior teammate] was like, ‘Ri, are you going to cry or what?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really know.’ This has been so incredible, so much fun, week after week, to keep going like this. Another week of practice, and games, another week of being together.”

Ozuna, one of the most articulate of Lady ‘Cats once she gets it going, continued with rapid-fire honesty.

“We are so grateful for what is happening, so humble. We don’t want it to stop, we really have the drive to make this happen…we love it, we have the passion. Isn’t that the way it should be?”

She understands that now that EHS is out of the Valley, the opponents will be stiff, definitely tougher than it has faced. But Ozuna has never lacked confidence, and says that the other teams can underestimate the Lady Bobcats at their own peril.

“We are little but we’re fast and we have been running like crazy to get in even better shape,” she said. “We really have the sticks going right now. We are fortunate I think because the bracket we have isn’t impossible, we can really win this series and keep going farther.”

THE GLORIOUS GRIND

Monday was hot as blazes in these parts, and another week of the Dream Season meant back to work for EHS, after its stunning come-from-behind victory over San Benito last week in the regional quarters. Ozuna noted that though some might see the duration between series as too long a period to wait, she intuits only a positive.

“Oh no, it’s a plus to me, because we get to go back and touch up on our weaknesses and get sharper,” said the three-year starter with the smooth mitt and killer swing at the plate. “We all asked coach, ‘What can we do better?’ and we are working on the little things, because we know they’ll make a difference in the next round. And running is huge for us, because we know that it will be even hotter in Laredo, for sure.”

Ozuna is toiling away at her blind spot, a tendency to swing from the heels. She will fess up that late in the third game against San Benito, with the Lady ‘Cats way ahead, she went up there trying to kill the ball.

When she comes to the plate, the girls chant: “She may be little, she might be small, but Mariah’s got that bead on the ball.”

And it is true, as the skinny 117-pounder has cracked three homers this season. Ozuna is not a big girl, but she is among the strongest kids on the team; she’s all sinew and quick-striking force, packing a wallop she should not be able to have given her slight frame.

“But I have to watch that, I know I shouldn’t have gone up there and take swings like that, I was wrong,” she chuckled. “So I want to get back to taking short, compact cuts. We all have something to work on, you know?”

So it is a week away, or less now, and EHS is preparing for its biggest series ever. At 30-4 the Lady ‘Cats have advanced farther than any team in school history. If they get past Taft, it will mark the deepest penetration in city history, and among the greatest runs in Valley annals. Actually, no local outfit has made it past the next mile on the journey that awaits them.

“We’re all anxious for it, don’t get me wrong,” Ozuna admitted. “So I say that the time between games is good for us, but we also are getting seriously ready, we want to play now. Victoria Ponce went to the Sweet 16 with the basketball team, but the rest of us, we have no experience there, so we want to see what it’s like, see what we can do. I’m telling you, we are confident right now. But we can’t let it get to our heads.

“We just have to maintain. Like, it’s great that we are here, but we want to win this week and we want to keep traveling. It’s all in the hearts and minds, 80 percent of it is mental, 20 percent physical. I have so much faith in my girls, there isn’t one on this team that won’t go in there and do what they need to do. I love ‘em al1!”

That sort of can-do spirit was on display after EHS lost the series opener at San Benito, 2-0. The loud-lunged Lady Greyhounds came out ready with EHS trailing a bit behind, but the girls turned it on to rout the enemy in a home doubleheader the next day.

“I was telling them, ‘Ladies, we are not going to end this thing,’” she recalled. “We wanted to get out of the Valley and show the rest of the state what we have, and we were able to come back and make it happen. We just got mad after that loss…they were talking so much, it was ridiculous, even their fans. After all the work we had put in, it just wasn’t going to happen to us like that.”

The sweat and strain she’s put in with the Lady Bobcats, and with the well-known Kaos summer league team (along with slugger Rios, her double-teammate) has enabled Ozuna to land a scholarship to the next level, at a military institute in Alabama. Perfect setting for this nails-out battler, but even though she realized the opportunity before 2010 began, having signed an early letter of intent, she hasn’t let that cloud her judgment or effort.

“That is a dream I have always had, and it’s an accomplishment I am proud of, the chance to play in college,” she beamed. “But right now is right now, and this team is this team, and it’s my team, our team! The future is the future but I am not thinking about college right now at all. This a great team, my girls, and we have really turned into a close family, through all this. We do not want this to end!”