Lady Highlanders crowned champs over Mater Dei

By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal

After notching a complete game against Villa Park in the semifinals, Hannah Johnson tossed three scoreless innings in relief, helping the Lady Highlanders hang on for the 6-5 win over Mater Dei in the championship game of the Alan Dugard Softball Classic Tournament.LHHS SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP_Web

The No. 4 team in California, Mater Dei didn’t go away quietly on Saturday night. With runners on second and third and two down in the seventh, closer Harley Wells fielded a comebacker cleanly and fired the ball to first base, picking up the save and the title for La Habra.

Head Coach Steve Harrington was impressed with how his team responded to adversity against one of the top teams in California, especially in such a high pressure situation, which he admitted La Habra had never experienced before.

“That’s kind of our mantra, to be resilient and these kids demonstrated that today,” Harrington said. “They had a great deal of heart when their back was against the wall and they didn’t start ripping at each other, they started praising each other.”

Harrington said he knew playing Mater Dei was going to be tough until the final out.

“Number one they are a fantastic team, they are well coached, they are good people and good kids,” Harrington said. “I know some of those kids, they are good players, so we knew this was going to be a battle back and forth.”

The end couldn’t come soon enough for the Lady Highlanders, who had to play back to back games totalling over four hours of play that began at 5:15 p.m.

The Lady Highlanders got on the board in early, scoring their first run in the second inning on a RBI single from Nikki Butler.

The rest of the offensive action for both teams happened in the third.

La Habra added to their lead with five more runs, all coming with two outs in the top half of the inning. With the bases loaded, starting pitcher Janelle Rodriguez lined a two-run single into the outfield. Butler came up big again with a bases clearing double to the right-centerfield gap, giving her 3 RBI in the game.

After replacing starter Gabrielle Sandoval, relief pitcher Danielle Kahn hit the first batter she faced, then allowed an infield single that brought home the final run.

Mater Dei surged back into the game in the bottom half of the inning, scoring four of their five runs. The first two came on a squeeze bunt. Rodriguez fielded the ball quickly and underhanded it to Butler, who blocked the plate and applied the tag a hair late. The second run scored on Butler’s throw to second. The Lady Monarchs added two more before Rodriguez settled down to retire the final out in the inning.

Harrington said that he didn’t get frustrated, instead he tried to encourage his team reminding them they had a big lead, not to dwell on the mistakes.

“The last thing a kid needs is for you to yell at her and tell her what she already knows,” he said.

Rodriguez was cruising along until the uncharacteristically sloppy inning, finishing with 2 earned runs and 4 strikeouts in just 3 innings.

“I was hoping that mentally the way we prepare, the way we play, that we would be able to weather that storm and rather than get caught up in the hype of it all,” Harrington said.

Johnson picked up her second win of the day, going 3 innings with 2 strikeouts. She also tossed a complete game against Villa Park, racking up 9 strikeouts. Johnson was credited with an unearned run in the seventh, after the throw from shortstop on the would be third out sailed wide of first base.

Wells inherited a high-leverage situation, entering in the bottom of the seventh with two on and no out. However, despite the throwing error, Wells proved up for the task and handled the pressure well.

Rodriguez and Frankie Mendoza each hit a solo home run against Villa Park earlier in the day.

La Habra (16-1), the No. 3 team in California has now won 13 straight. Mater Dei (16-3) had won their previous seven coming into the title game.

The Lady Highlanders start Freeway League play April 12 at Sonora.

Started in 1995, the La Habra Journal is an independent community news source serving the cities of La Habra and La Habra Heights.