SOFTBALL: Tigers tear section title away from Panthers

Woodlake softball celebrates winning the Division V Central Section Championship after a stunning 5-4 walkoff win over Porterville in the title game.(Kason Clark)

Woodlake overcomes a deficit for a walkoff 5-4 win over Porterville; the Tigers win the Division V Central Section Championship and clinch a berth in the Division IV CIF SoCal Regionals

FRESNO – Throughout the season, Woodlake softball dominated its competition en route to a league title and a spot in the Division V Central Section Championship game this past Saturday. But in the title game at Margie Wright Diamond, the No. 1 seed Tigers found themselves in unfamiliar territory: a 4-2 deficit against No. 6 seed Porterville heading into the final inning.

Yet, the Tigers demonstrated the strength of their program as they clawed their way back on May 25. They first gave themselves a chance when they loaded the bases with two outs. Batter Joey Huntington then put the ball in play and beat the throw to first base, allowing two of her teammates to score and tie the game. As Porterville tried to pick off the last runner, an error allowed Giselle Valencia to score the game-winning run for the 5-4 victory to hand the Central Valley title to the Tigers.

“I’m honestly in shock right now,” Huntington said about the stunning comeback for the Central Valley title. “I’m really excited. Especially with this being my senior year. I just never thought going into my freshman year that we’d be able to do this but I just give this to my girls.”

Woodlake head coach Ramon Lara has coached Huntington and this group of the girls for the past three years. So as they brought home their first Central Valley title under his leadership, Lara was excited for his players.

“It’s huge. We’ve had a good group of girls now that I’ve been coaching for three years” Lara said. “There’s a core there that has really just gone above and beyond and for them to end it this way is huge. They had that nice little Cinderella story this year where they won their league and now to come and do this is amazing.”

“This title means a lot,” Woodlake junior Carissa Lopez said. “We just showed them that we could do it so it’s big because we’re from a small town making big things happen.”

While it was not the dominant win they have been accustomed to, the Tigers extended their current winning streak to 16 straight games and improved their overall record to 28-2. They opened the postseason by outscoring their first three opponents, 24-0, and to start their game against Porterville, it looked like the Tigers would continue their dominant ways.

With two runners on base to start the bottom of the first inning, Audrina Rodriguez doubled to left field to clear the bases and give the Tigers a 2-0 lead. But after the Tigers’ first blow, the Panthers swiped right back. 

The Panthers opened the top of the second by getting two runners on. Alexa Garcia then drove in Porterville’s first run of the game with an infield single. Madison Sandoval followed that up with a single to drive in another run, and an error on the same play allowed another runner to score to give underdog Porterville a 3-2 lead.

“Our freshmen, they had the jitters and it cost them a little bit,” Lara said about the defensive mistakes that allowed Porterville to take the lead. “It’s a little different when you go play in these big games in a big stadium.”

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(Kason Clark)

Later in the third, the Panthers took advantage of another Woodlake error as Maddisyn Montecinos scored to push the lead to 4-2. Meanwhile, the Tigers bats went cold as they struggled to get the offense going again. But even as the Tigers struggled, Lara made sure to keep the faith. 

“We told the girls eventually something’s going to happen and something’s going to fall,” Lara said. “They had to battle defensively in our pitch in order to make sure we kept it a two-run game.”

And the Woodlake defense answered the call. Halfway through the contest, first baseman Hannah Lafferty gave her team a spark when she went for a foul ball heading into the Porterville dugout. She slipped and fell in the dugout, but she caught the ball and was able to stay in the game. As the Tigers went into the rest of the contest, they looked to rally off Lafferty’s defensive gem.

“She put her body on the line to try and get that out,” Huntington said. “We work for each other and she was a big catalyst in this.”

Heading into the bottom of the seventh, the Tigers still trailed 4-2 and were looking to wake up offensively. As they opened the inning, Lopez and Mareli Zamora gave the Tigers that spark with a pair of singles.

“Whenever someone gets a big hit on the team, it sets off dominoes and makes everyone else think they could do it,” Lopez said about her hit to open the inning.

The Panthers did force the next two Woodlake batters to ground out, needing only one more out to win the Central Valley title. After Porterville intentionally walked the next batter to load the bases, Huntington went up to the plate with her team down to its final out.

Looking to keep the game alive, Huntington put the ball in play and sprinted to first. She beat the throw in to keep the game alive while the Panthers believed they had gotten the throw in for the final out. A pair of Woodlake runners took advantage of the mess at first as they both scored to tie the game. And Valencia was right behind them looking to win the game.

As Valencia came around third and began to head home, the Panthers got the throw into home plate and caught Valencia in no man’s land. As Valencia began to run back to third, the catcher overthrew the third baseman and the ball went into the outfield. Valencia then turned right back around and hustled home for the game-winning run for the Tigers.

With the heartbreaking loss, the Porterville Panthers finished their season with an overall record of 10-17. While they let a Central Section title slip away, the Panthers had a good playoff run that included road wins over Chavez and Orcutt Academy. As the Panthers battled adversity throughout the season, Porterville head coach Brian Hill was proud of the run his team went on to close the year.

“We had kids gone for things because they’re involved in stuff and we were never together. Even in our first playoff game, we only had nine girls because of grad night and then we just went on a run,” Hill said. “I’m happy for the kids that they got this opportunity and I’m just happy for everything they accomplished.”

With their comeback win to claim the Central Valley crown, the Tigers qualified for the Division IV CIF SoCal Regionals. As the Tigers look to go on another run to try to bring home another trophy, Lara wants them to maintain the same mindset that just won them the Central Section championship.

“For us, it’s not over until that last out and we’re going to continue with that mentality,” Lara said. “They’re going to sacrifice everything they’ve got. We’re a small town, but they’re going to battle to the end.”

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