From the Highland softball team’s perspective, the first inning of its Central Section Division V semifinal playoff game against Tollhouse-Sierra on Wednesday, couldn’t have gone much better.
As far as the Chieftains are concerned, it was a disaster.
After retiring Sierra quickly in the top of the first, Highland scored seven runs in the bottom half of the frame to take control of the game. The Scots never relinquished it and went on to defeat the visiting No. 12 Chieftains, 9-4.
“Our coaches really pushed us to come out strong,” Highland second baseman Mikayla Nunlist said. "And we did that today.”
No. 1 Highland (17-5) will face No. 2 Kern Valley in the D-V championship game on Saturday in Fresno.
It will be the Scots’ first appearance in a section championship game since they won the D-III title in 2007.
"Me as a first-time head coach, that was my goal,” Highland coach Jackie Puente said. “My goal was to win league and get past the second round, which we did. My third goal was to get to the championship game."
The Scots batted around in the first inning, racking up five hits and a sacrifice fly against a Sierra squad that helped the Highland cause by committing four errors.
The Chieftains struggled with their fielding throughout the game, tallying a total of nine errors.
The Scots capitalized on a pair of Sierra miscues to score a pair of runs in the second inning and led 9-1 heading to the third.
Down by eight, Sierra chipped away at Highland’s lead, scoring two runs in the fourth and one in the fifth as Mel Broderson and Tyler Gonzalez both hit solo home runs.
The damage could have been much worse for Highland. Sierra loaded the bases both innings, but Scots pitcher Brianna Acosta was able to minimize the Chieftains’ scoring opportunities by recording several clutch outs.
Acosta went the distance in the circle, allowing three earned runs on five hits and six walks. The junior right hander, who pitched in pain after aggravating a chronic right quadricep injury in the third inning, recorded five strikeouts.
"We did a great job putting the ball in play and getting runs in," Acosta said. "The defense worked behind me really well. I'm glad we're going to ‘Valley’."
The Scots offensive attack amassed 10 hits (six singles and four doubles) and one walk against Sierra pitcher Alyssa Rue.
Seven of Highland’s hits came during the first two innings. Nunlist went 3-for-4 with two runs and knocked in the game’s first run with a bloop double to right field. Sunny Phillips went 2-for-4 with a double and was the only other Highland player to have multiple hits.
Anita DeLeon had a pair of singles for Sierra, which surprised many people by making it to the semifinals. The Chieftains came into the playoffs having won just one of their previous seven games.
Sierra coach Sun-Shuri Naylor had mixed emotions about her team having its season come to an end.
"It's disappointing," Naylor said. "It's also bittersweet. This is the first time in 15 years that we've advanced this far in the Division V playoffs. All it takes is one inning full of errors. This is a textbook example of how it can come back to bite you, and it did."
Highland enters the D-V finals amid a hot streak. The Scots have won eight in a row are 14-1 in their last 15 games.
"We've put in so much hard work and it's paying off,” Nunlist said. “We can see it on the field and in the dugout. We are so bonded. I think that's what has made us become the team we are today. I'm so proud of my team and what we've done. We have to keep it going Saturday."