MADERA -- For the second straight year, Arizona Pilgrim delivered a stellar pitching performance in the Central Section Division IV softball title game.
This time, however, the sophomore hurler got the run support she needed to help Taft High win the big one.
Pilgrim tossed a four-hitter and smacked a two-run home run as the Wildcats overpowered top-seeded host Liberty-Madera Ranchos 9-3 for the Division IV title Thursday.
"I thought I did I did the best I could to help out my team," Pilgrim said. "And they all did awesome. Every single one of them pitched in to help."
No. 2 Taft (26-6) opened a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning on Pilgrim's fifth homer of the year and then added four more runs the following frame to pull away for its 15th straight victory and first section championship since 2001.
"It's great work by these girls," Taft coach Russell Emberson said. "They're awesome. They battled the whole time and they never give up."
The Wildcats lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Fowler in last year's D-IV title game.
Pilgrim, who pitched brilliantly in the 2012 loss, used that setback as a motivational tool throughout this season.
“It was in our heads every day in practice, every game,” Pilgrim said. “We had it in the back of our minds every day.”
Liberty-Madera Ranchos (24-7) won the previous four Central Section Division V titles. By falling to Taft on Thursday, the Hawks had a 13-game playoff wining-streak snapped.
“It was a great battle,” Liberty coach Leslie Wood said. “Taft brought a very tough team for us to play. Their pitcher did a fantastic job and they got it done with the bats.”
Shortly after the final out, the large contingent of Taft students who made the 21⁄2-hour trip rushed the field and celebrated with the
Taft’s high-powered offensive attack, which averaged nearly 10 runs per game this season, racked up 10 hits and drew five walks off Liberty pitchers Hannah Shevenell and Cassidy Santa Cruz.
It took the Wildcats some time to get rolling, though, as Shevenell held Taft hitless through three innings while allowing only one ball to be hit out of the infield.
Pilgrim was just as dominant early, giving up just a first-inning single before the Hawks finally broke through in fifth on Renee Ortega’s three-run homer.
By that time Taft had already scored six times.
An inning after Pilgrim hammered a 3-1 pitch from Shevenell over the left-field fence for a 2-0 lead, the Wildcats knocked the Liberty starter out of the game.
Following singles by Tara Kelley and Halle Neher, Shevenell was replaced in the circle by Santa Cruz, who surrendered three hits, issued a walk, and hit a batter without recording a single out.
The Wildcats sent 10 batters to the plate and scored four runs before the inning was finally over. Mikaela Davis struck the key blow during the rally, a two-run single.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Davis hit a fly ball that dropped just in front of Liberty center fielder Randi Wallace.
Davis was one of eight Taft players to get at least one hit. The senior first baseman was 1-for-1 with two walks and a sacrifice bunt.
She drew a bases loaded walk in the sixth and finished with three RBIs.
With two singles each, Corie Evans and Haylee Tracy were the only Taft players with multiple hits. Evans had two RBIs and Tracy scored a pair of runs.
Caitlyn Emberson, the Wildcats’ leading hitter, went 1-for-2 and twice was walked intentionally. The sophomore catcher, who hit .590 with 10 home runs this season, was pulled for a courtesy runner all three times she reached base. Her replacement on the base paths, Bethany Fitzsimmons, scored three runs.
Two of the three runs Pilgrim allowed were earned. In addition to the one home run, she gave up just three singles and didn’t issue any walks.
“This is very exciting,” Emberson said. “We’re losing a lot of seniors this year so I’m glad to have them win it.”
Like Pilgrim, Emberson believes last year’s title-game loss was a big motivation.
“The whole time,” she said, “we were just thinking, ‘We can’t do the same thing as last year. We need to get to back there and show everyone what we got and prove it this year. Win that title.’”