Cynthia Granado says that other teams can doubt her cousin (and her team) all they want. But don't expect it to pay off.

"She is so cute," cooed Granado after Annie Badillo had won for the second straight night. "But also, she's a tough little girl, and she's improved so much each year. I just love Annie!"

Well, after North outplayed Sharyland in Game Three of the area round series, Saturday night at North, a lot of folks in blue and gold are feeling mighty chummy with Little No. 3 too.

Pitching her third game in three days, the diminutive junior righty held the line well with a four-hitter, tossed in a pair of base hits, and was thus an integral ingredient of the team's 29th win, a 4-2 clincher over the Lady Rattlers that sends them into the regional quarterfinals against 30-3 San Benito this weekend.

"We haven't been this far in the playoffs since my freshman year," said senior Granado, who cranked a base hit and made some excellent stretches/catches at first base. "You know, Annie did so well in this series, and she has a blister on her hand...actually a blister on a blister. So, really, she may be little but that is one tough kid, I'm tellin' you."

The whole North group, in fact, has been tough this postseason, first getting past Weslaco and now Sharyland. Having rebounded from a 3-1 opening loss at home Thursday (in which fielding was the problem) the team won Friday with a comeback, like it had done twice against the Pantherettes. Saturday was just the better team doing it, winning all phases of a must-have it had to take.

Coach Richard Tressler notes that one thing this squad has got in spades is smarts.

"We are so experienced at certain spots, these girls have been there before and they know how to play the pressure games," he said, mentioning four-year starter Claire Garcia as a great example of the cool, money athlete who relishes the big moments. "These are good kids, smart out there on the field, and I am very proud of what they've accomplished so far."

Oh, and one other thing North has that most teams do not, besides Little Big Girl and a moxie, steady team of vets.

Victoria Cardenas!!!

If you didn't see it in person, look alive, because the senior catcher's gargantuan third-inning home run Saturday is probably still rolling somewhere. It was an absolute bomb, launched into a harsh wind but leaving no, no doubt about where it was headed. The first-pitch, two-run shot made it 3-1, after Shary had scratched for a run in the first and North had tied it in the second.

There was some question coming into Game Three if the Lady Rattlers were going to even pitch to the Valley's most dangerous slugger. Cardenas said beforehand that she doubted it. But Shary gambled, and she made them pay, hardcore, with one of the most imposing homers of the year.

"She has 52 RBI this year, I have never had that from one girl on this team, ever," Tressler said in admiration, pointing toward the outfield fence and its banners recounting 11 previous playoff trips. "She's a big part of what we need, to get us back to the sort of domination we have been used to. This team is capable of doing as well as any we have had. Now we just have to figure out what the San Benito series is going to be all about."

The Shary series was all about execution. With Badillo popping the mitt consistently, Sharyland was able to get no closer than the eventual final of 4-2, with a single run in the fourth. Other than that, Garcia at short and Sam Cantu at third enjoyed fine fielding games and Lauren Salaiz contributed a key RBI and hit the ball hard all night.

Now North can tie the school record for wins (30) set back in 2005 when the club reached the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year. And standing in its way is an old friend, San Benito.

"Well, you know they beat us twice last year in the playoffs, handily," Granado frowned. "So this is good, we want to play them again, to show them that we are better now, that we have more confidence, and we can win. And if it comes down to a three-game series, maybe two on one day, I already asked...Annie said she's up for it."