With the league championship on the line, the Half Moon Bay High School frosh-soph softball team, a squad known for its prowess at the plate, couldn't put runs on the board in a May 13 matchup against host Mills High School.
The game's winner would take home the Peninsula Athletic League crown, but such motivation produced a defensive standoff, and neither team managed to bring home a runner through the first six innings.
But as usual, the indomitable Cougars came through. To avoid extra innings, Half Moon Bay scored twice in the top of the seventh and hung on through the bottom of the inning to snare a 2-0 victory and sole possession of the PAL crown.
"They should feel really good about themselves," Cougar coach Bob Gaines said. "They accomplished what they set out to do and I'm proud of them. They should be proud of themselves."
With the win, the Cougars finished their season with a 24-3 overall record, 14-1 in league. They were virtually unchallenged in the PAL, having beaten the second-place team, Mills, twice during the season.
Gaines attributed the team's success to a combination of natural talent and hard work.
"I always thought they could win it _ they were good enough athletes, all they needed was some fine-tuning," Gaines said. "They did all the extra things they needed to do to be a winner: staying after practice, taking extra grounders, always working hard."
On Tuesday, however, it was all in jeopardy when the Cougars could not bring a run home. Through the first six innings, Half Moon Bay stranded eight runners.
Fortunately for the Cougars, Mills didn't even put a runner on base until the fourth inning. That Viking reached third base, but Half Moon Bay pitcher Rachel Pacheco was able to hold her there by forcing a ground out and two pop outs. Pacheco repeated the task in the fifth frame, when Mills players took second and third base with no outs, but were stranded when Pacheco retired the next three batters to preserve the tie.
Pacheco's pitching performance set the scene for the seventh inning, a rare do-or-die moment for the Cougars.
"The pressure was definitely on us to score," Gaines said.
For that purpose, Half Moon Bay had the right person on base _ center fielder Rayner Balciunas, who sent a base hit into right field with one out in the inning. Balciunas moved to third on a single from second baseman Jen Borges. Then, one of the Cougars most reliable sluggers, Diana Douglas, came to the plate.
With a one-and-one count, Douglas tapped a one-hopper back to the pitcher, and Balciunas used her speed to slide into home before the Mills catcher even had the ball. Pacheco then hit the ball into left field to bring in Borges, giving the Cougars a lead they would not surrender, much to the delight of the Cougar faithful, which came out in force for the title game as they have all season, said Gaines.
"I want to thank all the parents and friends who supported the team," Gaines said. "I think it added a lot for the kids. It was great to have people pulling for them, cheering for them."
When the dust cleared, Pacheco had allowed just two hits in the game, walked no one and struck out five. Douglas and Alicia Messer had two hits a piece, and Balciunas, Borges, and Barrella all had base hits.
"I told them at the beginning of the year that the pitching would really have to come through, and Rachel did," Gaines said.
At a PAL coaches meeting last week, the entire Cougar starting lineup was named to the all-league team. Pacheco, Balciunas, Douglas, and Borges received first-team honors; Messer, Tiffany Girvin, and Collette Seaton took second-team honors, and Barrella and Erin McGrath were given honorable mention.