The Central Coast Section Division I softball semifinal between No. 2 San Mateo and No. 3 Aragon was about what you would expect from two good teams that know each other very well.
The teams took turns grabbing momentum, but it was the Dons who grabbed it last as they rallied from a 5-3 deficit to beat the Bearcats 7-5 at College of San Mateo and advance to their first CCS softball championship game since 1986.
The Dons will face top-seeded Watsonville (23-4) in the finals at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at PAL Stadium in San Jose. Watsonville beat No. 5 San Benito 5-4 in the other semifinal.
And to think, four years ago Aragon finished the season 1-22.
“It’s amazing,” said Kayleigh Puchinelli, a senior second baseman who was on that 1-win team as a freshman. “I don’t know if I’m going to play next year, so I want this season to last as long as possible.”
Not surprisingly, the long ball factored into the game for Aragon (21-6), as the Dons had hit 29 homers heading into the game. Also not surprising, freshman Megan Grant blasted one Thursday, her 13th on the season.
But Puchinelli, the leadoff hitter, and No. 2 hitter Shannon Galliano had combined for one home run this season. They doubled that number Thursday as each went deep against San Mateo (17-6).
“Our amazing offense has always kept us in [games],” said Aragon head coach Roger Miller “We just tell them to keep it close.”
Puchinelli’s three-run blast to left in the top of the sixth proved to be the deciding hit as it turned a 5-3 deficit into a 6-5 advantage. Galliano gave the Dons an insurance run as she followed with a solo shot to right for a 7-5 lead.
“Sage [Hager, San Mateo pitcher] had one bad inning and they took advantage,” said San Mateo head coach Alyssa Jepsen.
Puchinelli’s homer was her only hit of the day. She struck out in her first two at-bats, but drew a walk in the fifth, giving her confidence going into her sixth-inning at-bat.
And then there was the wind, that was blowing out all game long.
“By the third at-bat, I knew where I needed to be,” Puchinelli said. “And before the game, I noticed the wind and said, ‘This could be good or bad.’”
That four-run sixth gave Aragon senior pitcher Holly Fletcher the boost she needed to close out the win. San Mateo got a leadoff hit from Bethany Shih to start the bottom of the seventh, but Fletcher got a flyout to center, a foul out to third and a routine 5-3 grounder to punch their ticket to the finals.
Fletcher allowed five runs while scattering six hits and striking out eight.
“Fantastic, as always,” Miller said of Fletcher’s performance. “She kept [San Mateo] off the bases.”
Selvitella had two of San Mateo’s hits, both doubles.
Aragon’s late-game heroics was simply the icing on the cake of a highly competitive, entertaining game. Both pitchers worked out of early-inning jams, with Fletcher escaping a runners-on-second-and-third scenario in the first inning, while Hager tip-toed around a similar situation in the top of the second.
It the third, the offenses got going. Aragon got on the scoreboard first and it was their fabulous freshmen duo that led the way. With two outs, freshman catcher Olivia DiNardo beat out a slow grounder to second base. It proved to be a pivotal play as it allowed Grant to bat in the inning and she made the Bearcats pay as she belted a line drive over the fence in right field for a 2-0 lead.
San Mateo answered back in the bottom of the frame. With one out, Shih drew a walk and Jada Walker singled. Following a foul out, cleanup hitter Jordan Seyfried came to the plate. After working a 2-0 count, she jumped on the third offering and sent a towering fly ball to left that just barely got over the fence for a three-run home run and 3-2 San Mateo lead.
Hager got through the fourth inning unscathed, but the Dons threatened to break the game open in the fifth when they loaded the bases with no outs.
But Hager limited the damage. She gave up a sacrifice fly RBI to DiNardo that tied the game at 3-all, but Hager got a strikeout and a comebacker to escape allowing just the one run.
It looked like that could be the defining point of the game as the Bearcats came up in the bottom of the fifth and regained the lead. With one out, Shih was hit by a pitch. Walker followed and lofted a fly ball to deep left field that the fielder could not handle, putting runners on second and third. Selvitella followed and laced a two-run double to the fence in left to put the Bearcats up 5-3.
It was a short-lived lead, however, as the Dons took the lead for good in the top of the sixth. Cassidy Trizuto, one of four seniors on the team, singled and Elisa Jee followed with a one-out bloop single to right. Hager got a strikeout of the No. 9 batter for the second out of the inning to bring up Puchinelli, who, on a 3-1 count, lofted a fly ball over the left-field fence for a 6-5 advantage. Galliano’s homer to right capped the scoring for the day.
“Aragon is a talented team,” Jepsen said. “You can’t sleep on them.”