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Warriors win CIF softball championship

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

Fallbrook High School's softball team won the CIF Division V championship.

The Warriors faced Foothills Christian in the Division V final May 27 at the University of California, San Diego softball field. The 16-3 game was called after five innings due to the 10-run mercy rule.

"This team came together," said Fallbrook coach Lisa Stehle. "I'm just super proud of our girls. They didn't give in or give up."

Last year, Fallbrook's overall record was 2-17, including a first-round loss in the CIF Division IV playoffs, and the Warriors were 0-10 in Valley League games during 2021. This year Fallbrook took a 6-6 record into the Warriors' Valley League opener April 5 at home against San Pasqual.

Stehle scheduled pre-league games to prepare for league competition rather than for the Division V playoffs. "We have to prepare for the league that we're in," she said.

No 2022 Valley League team went undefeated in league play and no Valley League team lost all 10 games. San Pasqual won the league championship with an 8-2 league record while Ramona was second at 7-3. Fallbrook still finished last among the six league teams but won two games, and Escondido had a 3-7 record for fifth place. The Warriors lost their first seven league games before winning two consecutive home games when they defeated Valley Center by an 11-2 margin May 5 and Escondido in a 6-5 contest May 10. Escondido held a 5-4 lead after the third inning before Fallbrook scored in the fifth to tie the game and obtained the walk-off run in the bottom of the seventh.

Ramona needed a walk-off run in the bottom of the seventh for the Bulldogs' 6-5 home victory May 12 over Fallbrook which ended the league season for both Ramona and Fallbrook. The Warriors thus concluded the regular season with an 8-14 overall record along with their 2-8 league figure.

The CIF playoff selection and seeding meeting May 14 took into account strength of schedule as well as win-loss record. San Pasqual was seeded sixth in the Division I playoffs. Ramona was the 12th Division II seed. Westview was third in the Valley League standings and had the fifth seed in the Division III postseason.

Fallbrook was given the third seed for Division V. "In this division, we were the only one with a positive strength of schedule," Stehle said. "They've been playing hard teams this year."

The third seed gave Fallbrook a first-round bye and a May 18 home game against Francis Parker. Fallbrook scored once in the bottom of the first, five times in the second, and twice apiece in the third and fourth innings for a 10-0 lead. The Lancers scored once in the top of the fifth to avert the shutout, but a Fallbrook run in the bottom of the fifth triggered the mercy rule and ended the game with an 11-1 final score.

Fallbrook senior Lexi Perez had a triple and two singles against the Lancers while scoring once and driving in three runs. Three Fallbrook players – senior Mel Becerra, sophomore Valerie Hernandez, and freshman Cherish Stevens – scored two runs apiece. Hana Winton pitched the first four innings; the freshman allowed only one hit and two walks while striking out eight batters. The final inning was hurled by junior Claire Hawthorne, who allowed an unearned run on one hit and struck out one opponent.

Maranatha Christian had the second seed in the Division V playoffs and took a 13-4 record into the Eagles' May 21 playoff game against Fallbrook, which was a Maranatha home contest. The game was scoreless until the Eagles scored twice in the bottom of the fourth. Fallbrook tied the game with two runs in the top of the fifth. Fallbrook scored twice more in the top of the sixth. A Maranatha run in the bottom of the sixth created a 4-3 score. Two Fallbrook runs in the top of the seventh gave the Warriors a 6-3 lead which became the final score when the Eagles were retired without scoring in the bottom of that inning.

Winton struck out 12 Maranatha batters and allowed only four hits and no walks. Two of the Fallbrook runs were scored by senior Baylee Howley while Perez led the Warriors with three hits including a double.

The CIF playoffs have a double-elimination format, so Fallbrook actually defeated Foothills Christian twice. Foothills Christian had the top seed and faced the Warriors in a May 26 game at the Poway Sportsplex. Fallbrook's 8-0 victory included a run in the first, three scores in the third, a tally in the fourth, and three Warriors rounding the bases in the sixth.

Winton allowed three hits and five walks in six innings while striking out four Knights. Hawthorne threw the seventh, allowing a walk and no hits with one strikeout. Howley's four plate appearances produced a double, two singles, a walk, three runs scored, one run batted in, and two stolen bases. Perez and sophomore Larissa Ramirez scored two runs apiece; Perez led the Warriors with two runs batted in and Ramirez stole two bases.

Prior to that game, the Knights' only loss had been in Pacific League play April 8 against Tri-City Christian. Fallbrook's victory broke a 12-game Foothills Christian winning streak (including two forfeit victories), and the Knights were 18-1 prior to the May 26 game with the Warriors.

The first victory over Foothills Christian put Fallbrook into the finals. "Each game prepared us to be here," Stehle said. "Every game has a new lesson."

Foothills Christian played a May 26 losers' bracket game against fifth-seeded Calipatria, and a 10-0 victory over the Hornets put the Knights into the championship game.

Fallbrook batted as the visiting team in the final. The Warriors scored four times in the first, and seven of the first eight Fallbrook batters reached base with the exception being retired on a sacrifice bunt.

Howley began the game with a home run over the UCSD right field fence. "When she got ahold of it you could just tell," Stehle said of the hit.

"It was pretty exciting," Howley said. "I had to hit a home run for the CIF championship game."

Perez was the next batter and drew a walk on a full count. She then stole second, advanced to third when Hernandez singled to left field, and scored when sophomore Berlin Broussard hit a ground ball single into left field. Becerra then executed a sacrifice bunt to advance Hernandez to third and Broussard to second.

Winton then doubled to left field to score Hernandez and Broussard. "I'm really happy about that," Winton said. "It's kind of like breaking out of a slump."

(Winton drew a walk but was hitless in three at-bats May 26. She had two singles in four at-bats May 21.)

Other than Becerra, only one Fallbrook batter was retired at the plate in the first inning with the third out being made on a runner trying to advance.

Five additional Fallbrook runs were scored in the second inning. Howley's ground ball went past the shortstop for a single, and she then stole second and took third on the errant throw. Perez singled to right center field to score Howley. A wild pitch over the catcher's head allowed Perez to advance all the way to third base. Hernandez walked and then stole second to put runners on second and third. Broussard tripled to right center field to drive in Perez and Hernandez. Broussard scored on Winton's single to left field.

A softball player removed for a pinch-runner may remain in the game. Stehle brought in freshman Kailey Peet to run for Winton. Peet stole second and advanced to third when sophomore Paige Abeyta grounded out to second base. Ramirez hit a single through the pitcher's legs and into center field to score Peet.

Winton had allowed a full-count walk in the bottom of the first, one of the Knights batters in the second reached on an error, and Foothills obtained a single to left and an infield single in the third. Winton struck out five batters during those three innings.

"I feel like I did the best I could," Winton said.

Winton and Stehle both noted that Winton had hurled six innings two days earlier. Hawthorne would pitch the final two innings for Fallbrook. "It was a lot of pressure, but my team is my greatest motivation," Hawthorne said.

"I don't define our team by just a pitcher. It's our whole defense," Stehle said. "You can't put everything on one person."

Before Hawthorne took the mound, the Warriors batted in the top of the fourth and scored seven times to take a 16-0 lead. Abeyta singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Ramirez walked on a full count. A bunt by freshman Alexa Fehling was placed between home plate and the mound to advance the two runners. Howley walked on four pitches to load the bases. Perez walked on four pitches to bring in Abeyta. A wild pitch scored Ramirez while advancing the other two runners. Hernandez singled to right to score Howley and Perez. Broussard hit a ground ball which went into center field for a single. Becerra hit a ground ball to third base, but the throw was wild and both Hernandez and Broussard scored while Becerra ended the play on third base. A wild pitch scored Becerra.

"I was hoping to win by the mercy rule. The girls were motivated," Stehle said.

Hawthorne retired the first two batters she faced before walking Janelle Klima and Jada Hallahan. With two outs the runners began pursuing subsequent bases as soon as the ball was hit, so pinch-hitter Oceanea Berndes scored both runners with her single. Hawthorne then walked Gabby Wolford before coaxing a groundout off the bat of Reese Winchester to end the inning.

Berndes then took the mound for the top of the fifth. All three Fallbrook batters were retired on groundouts.

In her previous two plate appearances, Foothills Christian senior Carly Robbins walked and singled, and she led off the bottom of the fifth with a single. Emma Romeka singled Robbins to second. Hawthorne then lured Michaelyn Able to hit a ground ball to third, and Broussard stepped on the bag for the force out. Hawthorne struck out Jenn Pollick for the second out. Klima, who had previously reached base on an error and a walk, singled to score Romeka.

Hawthorne then faced Tru Teves. The count was 1-2 before Teves swung and missed for the strikeout and the Fallbrook victory.

"I'm happy that she swung," Hawthorne said. "I'm happy that I got the opportunity to play, too."

The CIF softball championship was the second for Fallbrook. The Warriors' only other CIF finals appearance was in 1988, when the Class 3A championship game ended as a 2-0 Fallbrook victory over Madison.

"It's time for Fallbrook to come back and that's what I'm here for. I'm building a program," Stehle said. "The girls are learning that foundation."

Stehle was a Fallbrook assistant coach for three years before being selected as the Warriors' head coach in November 2020. She has also coached youth softball teams.

"This is a gift I'm happy to give," Stehle said of the CIF championship. "I'm really proud of our girls. I'm really proud that we can give this to our seniors."

The 2020 Warriors had a 2-3 record before the coronavirus shutdown ended the season early. The 2022 seniors also had three different head coaches during their four years in the program. "They weathered it all and were able to finish it this way," Stehle said.

"It's pretty exciting, especially winning for basketball and then winning for softball," Howley said.

Fallbrook High School's girls basketball team won the 2021-22 CIF San Diego Section championship. Howley is the only Fallbrook girl who was on both the basketball team and the softball team. "I really wanted it," Howley said of two CIF championships.

The win allowed Becerra, Howley, Perez, and Alani Lopez to conclude their high school careers in the Southern California regional championships rather than at the San Diego Section level.

Howley reached base on all four of her plate appearances in the final, scored three runs, had a run batted in, and stole a base. "It was pretty good," she said.

"We're really going to be sad to lose her," Stehle said. "She's a strong player."

Perez also scored three runs while driving in two and stealing a base. She had two walks and a single in her four plate appearances. Becerra had a run scored as well as a sacrifice bunt.

"Most definitely it's not an individual effort. This was a team effort," Stehle said.

The CIF championship improved Fallbrook's overall season record to 12-14.


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