The winning pitcher got a resounding welcome from her fans, hearing her name chanted as she left the field after pitching the Lady Cougars from oblivion into the playoffs the past two weeks.

“Annie! Annie! Annie!” they cried, delirious after North’s 4-3 nail-nibbling victory against rival EHS Friday night. At least 50 rooters surrounded the tiny freshman hurler and she disappeared into the mass of jubilant supporters.

That’s no misprint, folks. Annie Badillo, all 5-feet of her, was the star of the show in the biggest game of the year, handing her team the fourth playoff spot from 31-5A. Filling in for injured star Iliana Hinojosa, the first-year kid - having sat the bench most of the year watching her more experienced teammates struggle for the Second Season - was ready when the time came. And she delivered.

“I knew I would get a chance eventually, my dad told me to stay ready just in case, and with Ili hurt, I had to go in there and do my best,” said Badillo, younger sister of former North first sacker Laura Badillo. “I wasn’t really nervous.”

She may not have been nervous, but the capacity crowd on hand to witness the do-or-die finale to the regular season more than made up for it. They swarmed early at EHS, to see if the Lady Bobcats could pull of their first season sweep of the Lady Coogs in school history. The atmosphere was special. And loud.

Badillo was matched against fellow half-pint LeeAnne Hinojosa, and dueled “The Little General” all the way, throwing strikes, fielding her position flawlessly, and sending the Lady Coogs into the postseason, where they face an uphill climb against a very tough Brownsville Porter squad this weekend in bi-district.

Though she allowed nine hits, Badillo walked none, worked her way out of trouble a few times, and when she struck out Mariah Ozuna looking to end it, walked off the field, cool as a cucumber. Observers had heard about her skills from the time she hit the seventh grade, and the rumors are now fact.

“I had a lot of support behind me,” the soft-spoken and bespectacled freshman noted, and indeed Iliana Hinojosa, playing first base for the third game in a row after a finger injury knocked her off the mound, came through with some fine defensive plays Friday. “I knew my time would come.”

THE COMEBACK TRAIL

For North, the win capped a difficult period in which it withstood injuries and the departure of senior second baseman Cookie Torresmutt. It looked bleak for the team late in the year, long after a 13-1 start in non-league play; after losing two in a row and then barely holding off cellar-dweller P-SJ-A Memorial Tuesday, they limped into the last bout of the year needing a clutch effort.

What they got was a solid performance against an equally determined foe; this Friday Night Cat Fight lived up to all advance billing as an instant classic, with the winner moving on and the loser packing it in.

The teams squandered scoring chances borne mainly from fielding errors in the first two frames, but then started making timely hits. North scratched first in the third as Hinojosa’s two-out bouncer came up on EHS shortstop Anyssa Gonzalez, plating Cynthia Granado. The Lady ‘Cats countered with a two-out double from Sarina Rios (3 for 4) that cracked high off the fence in left-center, Victoria Ponce scoring her with a subsequent single.

It stayed that way, 1-1 until the fifth, when North worked for three runs off LeeAnne Hinojosa, who gave up eight hits on the night. Claire Garcia hammered one of her two doubles on the night, Hinojosa hit into an RBI fielder’s choice, and Victoria Cardenas (sacrifice fly) and Laura Torres (single) pushed the lead to 4-1.

EHS has battled all season with a lineup full of underclassmen (four fish in the starting roll) and the Lady ‘Cats methodically chipped away down the stretch.

They got one in the fifth as Rios singled with two outs and eventually scored on an error by third baseman Granado. A frame later they narrowed the gap to 4-3 with a clutch two-out slap single from LeeAnne Hinojosa, Claudia Salinas (2 for 3) steaming home on the hit.

Controversy reared its head in the sixth. With two outs and Hinojosa on second, Kassy Rodriguez hit a grounder to Garcia at short. She came up throwing and Hinojosa of North stretched for the throw. The base umpire hesitated on the call, as it appeared that the North first baseman might have been pulled off the bag and/or juggled the ball. A brief conference between the arbiters established that Hinojosa had made the play, and the run was taken off the board, amid much dismay from the EHS crowd as the promising inning ended prematurely.

Afterward, Coach Richard Tressler of North gave all the credit to his girls, who weathered a barrage of trauma and drama to make the playoff dance yet again.

“Heck, we won our first district title here years ago with only 10 players,” he said, in reference to the dwindling roster of kids he’s had to choose from given the injury bug and defections. “These girls knew what was at stake tonight and they did what they had to do. We got some big hits and overcame some mistakes. I can’t say enough about how they battled to make this happen.”

NOTES: North finished 9-5 in league play and 22-6 overall, to 8-6, 19-10 for EHS, which lost for the third straight game despite awesome catches in the outfield from Salinas and Rodriguez, plus a leaping grab at first from Rios. The team returns just about everyone next season and should be among the favorites to win the loop.

North goes against a Porter team that is 26-3 with two consecutive 14-0 seasons in District 32-5A.