HANFORD -- In the fading light at Hanford West High, in a softball game so back-and-forth it put most table tennis matches to shame, Jenna Gorman wanted to throw the ball to someone, anyone.
But by the time Gorman, Garces' shortstop, retrieved the ball from shallow left field Thursday evening, the Central Section Division II title was finally decided. Hanford West had scored the winning run in a 9-8, eight-inning thriller that left the Rams proud but heartbroken.
"It was a great game," Garces coach Mike D'Amato said. "I just wish it had ended different."
A game Garces once led 7-3 went into extra innings at 7-7. The Rams scored in the top of the eighth on Rachael Metzger's triple and Cassie Handel's single, but they couldn't hold the lead.
Third-seeded Hanford West (16-13) rallied with one out in the bottom of the eighth when Demi Balbina doubled, Handel hit Makenna Young with a pitch and Jayde Darpli reached on an infield single to Gorman, who tried to force Balbina out at third base -- right in front of the Garces dugout.
Video replays clearly showed Balbina was out, but she was called safe and the bases were loaded.
"That was a tough call at third base," D'Amato said. "That really changed the game. It looked like we had her. That's not to take anything away from Hanford West -- they're a great team. The game was just so close. It's funny how the ball turns sometimes."
With the bases loaded, Handel hit Jordan Matheney with a pitch to force home in the tying run.
"The girl just stuck her knee out," said Handel, who threw a complete game, striking out five, and was 3-for-4 with two RBIs at the plate. "I was like, 'No, this can't be it. This can't be it.'"
The next batter, Alia Barraza, blooped a single just out of the reach of Gorman as Young raced home with the winning run.
"It was a great battle," Hanford West coach Jeff Harger said. "Garces is a great team, and this was a great game. I felt like if we only gave up one (run) in the top of the eighth, we're OK. We had the top of the lineup up, and these kids just don't get down. They never quit."
It was the fourth section title in five years for Hanford West, but the other three came in Division III.
"I'm very proud of these kids," Harger said. "We're a young team, but we've been fighting all year. We've gotten better every week."
Garces, too, was looking for its first D-II title. And the Rams (24-9-1) got off to a great start, getting a sacrifice fly from Handel in the first and scoring three more runs via Hanford West errors in the first two innings, even as Hanford West got three runs back -- two unearned -- to briefly take the lead in the bottom of the first.
The bottom third of Garces' order was particularly effective, with Tyler Hughes going 4-for-4 and combining with Haley Witt and Alyssa Garcia for a 7-for-10 performance with four runs and two sacrifices. Garcia's RBI single and a two-run single from Maggie Arriola stretched the lead to 7-3 in the top of the fourth.
"Literally every inning, I thought, 'OK, we've got this now,'" Handel said. "It was hard."
Hanford West scored four times in the fourth inning to tie it, getting a two-run triple from Barraza and then the tying single from Kristen Heffley, all after Garces had a runner caught in a rundown but failed to get the third out.
"That inning hurt us," D'Amato said. "We didn't get the out out of that pickle. If we do that, we give up one run instead of four."
And so the game marched on into twilight, with each team collecting 14 hits but Handel and Hanford West pitcher Sadie Patlan each tossing three scoreless innings to get the game into extra innings.
It was there that Garces' championship run finally came to an end, even if the Rams could scarcely believe it.
"I'm so proud of all of us," Metzger said. "Every team always feels like they deserve it, but I really feel like we worked so hard. The ball just didn't roll our way. That happens sometimes."