SAN JOSE — One inning got away from the Hillsdale Knights.
That’s all it took for No. 5 Pioneer (15-11 overall) to pull off its second straight upset — after knocking off top-seed Valley Christian in the semifinals — en route to the Central Coast Section Division II championship.
Pioneer rallied for five runs in in the sixth inning to tally all the game’s runs in a 5-0 victory over No. 3 Hillsdale in Saturday’s championship game at PAL Stadium.
“Our seniors are just a phenomenal group of athletes,” Hillsdale head coach Kelly McDonald said. “More importantly, people that just gave their whole heart and soul into this season and into this team. It was unfortunate because the game got taken out of their hands a little bit.”
With just three senior starters, the Knights (17-8), as they have all season, fielded a majority underclassman lineup. That includes a rookie coach in McDonald, whose softball acumen led Hillsdale back to the CCS championship game for the second time in three years.
Starting pitcher Kealani Cardona, early on, looked poised to lead Hillsdale to its first CCS title since 1991. The senior left-hander set down the first nine batters she faced, then pitched out of a two-on, no-out jam in the fourth.
“I think everyone, we really come ready to play,” Hillsdale sophomore Chong said. “And it’s really nice knowing that you have a really good pitcher and we have a team to back it up. Everyone really trusts each other and has each other’s backs. And I think that’s what kept us in the game for so long.”
But Pioneer starting pitcher Mari Bajan was virtually unhittable, firing a two-hit shutout while striking out 12.
Pioneer’s lineup totaled eight hits, six of them coming in the sixth.
“They were phenomenal,” McDonald said. “They just went up to the plate ready to hit the ball. Pitchers have to throw strikes to you. That’s how this game works. And they were ready to take their hacks.”
Pioneer sent nine batters to the plate in the sixth, with junior cleanup hitter Lizzy Smith producing the pivotal swing of the bat with a two-out, two-run double to get her team on the board.
Smith sent a high drive to the power alley in left-center with Hillsdale left fielder Caitlin Regan in pursuit. Regan had to go a long way in her attempt to track the ball and made a diving attempt, but came up short as Smith’s drive fell in for a two-run double. After the game, Regan’s assessment of the play was simple.
“Almost there,” Regan said. “Almost there.”
With the thick outfield grass of PAL Stadium, the terrain may have been enough to slow down Regan and a Hillsdale outfield that on its home field plays on easy-to-navigate synthetic turf.
“Turf is obviously better,” Regan said, “but you’ve got to play to the field and every game is different. And you’ve just got to do your best to help the team.”
Halie Barron followed with an RBI single and pinch-hitter Breanna Ryan capped the rally with a two-run single. It was the first multi-run inning against Hillsdale in three CCS playoff games and the first multi-run inning surrendered by Cardona since a May 3 loss in PAL Bay Division play against Aragon.
Cardona came up clutch in the previous inning by commanding a double-play grounder. Pioneer senior Sydney Solis broke up Cardona’s perfect game with a leadoff single to center. Sydney Hemming followed with an attempt to move Solis over with a slap bunt, though her first two attempts went foul. Hemming followed with a hard-hit grounder that went for an error to put runners at first and second with no outs.
After an infield conference at the mound, though, Cardona with her very next pitch induced an infield grounder right at the third baseman Chong, who stepped on the bag and fired across to first for a double play. Cardona then escaped the inning on a comebacker to keep the scoreless tie intact.
“I think Kealani is a competitor,” McDonald said. “It’s not strategy so much as, ‘I want to beat this batter and I have to throw my best pitch in order to do that.’”
Bajan was too much for Hillsdale to handle though. The No. 5 through 9 spots in the Knights’ order never reached base. And the bottom three spots in the order went a combined 0 for 8 with eight strikeouts.
“That’s been the name of our [game] this year,” McDonald said. “If 6, 7, 8, 9 don’t produce anything, we lose.”
The youthful Knights enjoyed a strong season at the plate, though, batting .310 as a team, while team MVP Addison Ektekhari, a senior shortstop, led the Knights with four home runs, and Chong led with a .439 batting average and 23 RBIs.