FRESNO — The Central Section playoffs have not been easy on the heart for Stockdale faithful.
First, in the Division I quarterfinals, the Mustangs beat Hanford West with a run in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Then in the bottom of the seventh inning in the semifinals on Tuesday against Atascadero, freshman Lexi Rollin singled in senior Taylor Hardin, giving Stockdale a berth into the finals for the first time since 2011.
On Saturday night at Margie Wright Diamond at Fresno State, it was Hardin this time with a two-out double in the bottom of the sixth to score Sydney Hornbuckle from second for the game-winning run as the third-seeded Mustangs beat No. 5 Fresno-Bullard 1-0 as Stockdale captured the program’s fourth section title and first since 2010.
“Right now I am at a loss for words,” Stockdale coach Amanda Hockett said. “This is just an amazing feeling. These girls worked so hard. They did it as a team. My seniors stepped up and Sydney did her job in the circle. It’s a phenomenal feeling.”
Hornbuckle capped off one of the best postseason pitching performances in recent Kern County history. The junior, who is verbally committed to Colorado State, gave up a run in the second inning to Paso Robles in the opening round, and that was it.
Hornbuckle finished the playoffs throwing 26 scoreless innings and gave up just three hits and struck out nine.
“Especially in the postseason, she has really turned it on and done some amazing things for us,” Hockett said. “It’s amazing everything that she did and what her team did behind her.”
Whether it was Caitlyn Enriquez making a running catch deep in left field to keep Jazzy Castandeda from scoring from second in the first inning, or Hornbuckle’s twin, Katelyn, tossing out Kimiko Tanimoto at second on a double play to end the fifth, the Stockdale (27-5) defense stepped up.
Then Hardin, who was a backup the previous two seasons, made the biggest hit of her high school career in her last at bat.
Hornbuckle advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by senior Izzy Nieblas, who said she “knows it was my job” to bunt Hornbuckle over.
Then two batters later, Hardin roped a liner to right field and Hornbuckle raced in for the lone score.
“I was so excited,” Hardin said. “We are all bought in. It just thought about being in it the entire game and never losing hope. This is about us believing and proving everyone wrong.”
This win erases three years of heartache for Stockdale after losing in the D-I semifinals the first three years of Nieblas’ high school career.
“I am speechless,” Nieblas said. “It’s crazy. Like we said, this year was going to be different and it was. I am just so happy that we did what we said we were going to do.”
Bullard (23-6) threatened with runners in scoring position in the second and sixth innings, but both times Hornbuckle was able to shut down the Knights with an inning-ending strikeout to preserve her third consecutive shutout to end the season.
“I don’t know how to react. This is so great. I am so happy,” Sydney Hornbuckle said. “I knew my team had my back and if I give something up, I relied on them … I know we just won the Valley title, but I don’t feel different now. But I know this is so great and it will hit me soon.”