SHAFTER — That collective euphoria that the Highland softball team felt as they celebrated Thursday night was four years in the making.
On the heels of two disappointing playoff losses as the top seed and the cancelation of last year’s season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scots channeled those experiences into a dominant performance in this year’s postseason run.
No. 3 Highland capped off an impressive playoff run with a 9-0 victory over top-seeded Shafter, capturing the Central Section Division-V championship on the strength of timely hitting and solid pitching.
“They wanted it,” sixth-year Highland coach Jackie Puente, whose team lost 2-1 to Kern Valley in the 2018 section title game, which featured a controversial play at home plate that nullified what appeared to be the tying run in the bottom of the sixth. The Scots were upset in the quarterfinals the following season and only played eight games last season before the shutdown. “They were hungry and there was nothing going to stop them. We got robbed last year and we were going to get it back this year.”
The Scots outscored their opponents 39-1 in four postseason games this season.
“This is one the best (teams that I’ve coached),” Puente said. “Their mentality, all the energy that they had, they feed into each other and they don’t give up. It’s a great, great team.”
Leading 1-0, the Scots (18-4) broke things open with a six-run third inning. Senior Marissa Campos, who went 2 for 3, had a big double in the inning, and Jennifer Padilla and Sadie Salas added timely base hits during the outburst. Highland also capitalized on two walks, two hit batters and an error in the inning.
“Right when we got off the bus we were ready for it,” Campos said. “We were hyped for it. We wanted this really bad. We lost (in the final) in my freshman year and we wanted it for me and the other seniors. I’m very excited.”
With Highland’s offense clicking, Scots’ junior pitcher Briana Solis settled in and kept the Generals (14-2) off balance all night.
After working herself out of trouble in the first inning, Solis retired 15 straight batters during one stretch and finished with a three-hit shutout. She also hit a batter, but did not issue a walk.
“I just kept it simple and made sure to put the ball in play because I trust my team,” said Solis, who had just one strike out. “I was just hoping that once they put it in play, they’d get the out and it would be 1-2-3, like it was.”
Trailing 1-0 in the first, Shafter threatened to tie the game with a two-out rally. Nataly Espinoza was hit by a pitch and advanced on a single by Serenity Angula, who was 2 for 3 with a double. But Espinoza was thrown out trying to score, and the Generals didn’t get another batter on base until Natalie Herrera’s two-out single in the sixth.
“I gotta give Highland all the respect,” Shafter co-head coach Sharaya Durant said. “They came out on fire, hit the ball well, their pitcher threw well, but I don’t think we were completely on top of our game. Our pitching was a little hit and miss in the beginning and our defense wasn’t as clean as it usually is. So no, we weren’t at our caliber, but hats off to Highland. I mean, they brought it and played a good game.”