ALICE - In the second inning here Saturday, Myranda Hinojosa made one of the greatest plays of the year, bounding off the mound like a jackrabbit, scooping and throwing a grounded bunt in a single motion to nip a Lady Panther runner. Fourth: first baseman Brit Davila hustled over to snag a foul pop right before banging into the fence. Tori de Leon was super at third all muggy day, and second sacker Anissa Gonzalez leapt high to glove a hard shot in the third.
But as well as Edinburg played in the field, and it was considerably so, O'Connor, better known as the Swiss Ski Team, was just better. With a balanced and skillful group of gargantuan, bona fide athletes, the Lady Panthers (31-4) wrapped up the series sweep of the Lady Bobcats Saturday, winning 6-1 after a 7-4 triumph the night before.
The Lady ‘Cats (31-6) expired in the regional semifinals for the second year in a row, after running up against a blonde juggernaut of a club that did very little wrong in any phase of the game. This is a complete team for whom tight execution appears to be akin to breathing.
Though they competed gamely with a spotless defensive effort in Game Two, the Lady ‘Cats were cooked. A play from shortstop Katy Vanderwater in the third summed it up. The mammoth but lithe Lady Panther sucked up a grounder off the bat of Gonzalez, and with a slight smile on her face, chucked it over to first on the trot, with a leisurely but expert toss. It was as if she were saying, with brilliant nonchalance, "We gotcha, and there's nothing you can do about it."
And it was so, because every time the Lady ‘Cats appeared to have a chance of scratching against either of the two all-star O'Connor pitchers, either Lady Panther defense or Lady ‘Cat inability to hit in the clutch ended the tries.
Meanwhile, EHS pitching was good, not great, allowing three big innings over the two-day span, auguring no good. The latter, a four-run first Saturday off Hinojosa, knocked the girls on their cans emotionally on a draining morning that saw the first pitch at 11 a.m. They never really recovered from that, managing just a single run in the fifth off the first boo-boo O'Connor had made to that stage.
The first two damning frames had transpired Friday, when not even a late-arriving bus full of Valley rooters and the occasional interruption of the quaint yet raucous train whistle near the stadium could save the Lady ‘Cats.
The Lady Panthers struck for three in the third off Sammy Arciba. Then, after EHS had gotten a two-run double down the left-field pine from Leeanne Hinojosa to narrow the gap to 3-2 in the fourth, the eventual victor pasted four more on the scoreboard an at-bat later to pull away.
The enemy's patient approach at the plate achieved numerous quality at-bats, in contrast to EHS's weekend, which was sporadic at best in this category. The Lady ‘Cats crowded the plate against hulking Kenedy Urbany (19-0) in the opener, but were behind all night in the count, took no fewer than 10 balls for called strikes, and of their seven hits, none were terribly hard hit.
The next day, change-of-pacer Maegan Ramirez two-hit the Lady ‘Cats by keeping them off balance. EHS hit just one ball to the outfield all day Saturday, as it lunged and missed at outside, offspeed stuff and refused to hit the ball the other way.
But these seeming criticisms are merely observations of fact; the ultimate gloss on the series is that while EHS played hard (especially in Game One) and did the job afield (certainly, Game Two was an excellent display of leather), it was overmatched by a focused, enormous group of San Antonio kids who maddeningly exhibited no weaknesses.
Though the Lady ‘Cats were creative in trying initially to find things to hate about the foe, after the series, they had nothing but praise for the well-marshaled, finely tuned machine that knocked them out of the Sweet 16.
"I think we matched them on defense today," said Gonzalez after a sweaty Game Two had ended. "But we just didn't hit. If we had gotten some clutch hits, it might have been different...I hope they go far, they have a really good all-around team."
As for Hinojosa, it was the last time The Little General will appear in the red and blue, as she is now headed to learn the college game at Mary Hardin-Baylor. The senior outfielder was clutch on Friday, but 0 for 2 with a walk in the finale.
"They had a real solid team, that shortstop caught everything her way," said Hinojosa of the strong-armed Vanderwater, who also popped two of the team's three home runs during the series. "We did our best, we always do, and that's all you can ask. We were determined to leave it on the field."
Before it began, Coach Jesse Banda had recalled his high school and college playing days. At SA Lee in the mid-1960s, his teams were kicked out of the playoffs by future major leaguers Charlie Vaughan (Brownsville High) one year and Burt Hooton (Corpus Christi King) the next. As a Pan Am Bronc, however, he got revenge on Hooton at least when PAU defeated his Texas team to advance to the College World Series in 1971. He had hoped that his valiant band of little bits could Small Ball their way to an upset, but with the absolutely airtight Lady Panther infield playing close and fast, it never materialized.
"That is a great team, in every area of the game," said Banda after the series. "We never really got to their pitchers, and they had some big hits, they really hit the ball well. Still, we gave it all we had."
NOTES: From the Insult to Injury Department: Valley rival San Benito became the first area team in history to advance to the regional final with a series win over SA Southwest over the weekend. Last year the Lady ‘Cats rallied from behind to KO the Lady Greyhounds in Round Three, but did not make enough happen against O'Connor to set up the first All-Valley final in softball annals.