SOFTBALL: Mustangs travel to Hollister to face rival San Benito today

Gilroy's Dani Hemeon signals to Michelle Sosa and Kaylana Mah as

For GHS softball, road to league title must go through
A juicy opportunity to grab a share of first place in the Tri-County Athletic League sits in front of the Gilroy High softball team.

Already sitting comfortably at the top of the standings is San Benito.

Here we go again.

The two juggernauts add another chapter to an enthralling rivalry today in Hollister, hitting the diamond for a virtual league championship bout.

Today’s showdown kick starts a four-game push toward the playoffs for GHS. Though three games will remain on the Mustangs’ schedule, today’s outing stands as the most important and a mold to shape the rest of the regular season.

“We have to have flawless defense, and we must hit the ball and put the ball in play,” said GHS manager Julie Berggren, laying out a relatively straightforward approach to the contest.

But straightforward hasn’t necessarily been the route to some of the outcomes between the two squads over the years.

“A lot of it has to do with the history,” Berggren said. “It’s always a good game.”

For the past handful of seasons, San Benito has had a stranglehold on softball in the Central Coast Section.

The perennial-favorite Balers are the proverbial dragons in the castle, holding captive the section title five years in a row. Many have taken the journey up the mountain to sleigh the beast only to be turned away. GHS is all too familiar with that scenario. Whether it’s in league games or back-to-back losses in the section finals (2008 and 2009), the Mustangs have endured defeat to their rivals 15 straight times dating back to 2006.

The Mustangs have been close in recent attempts.

Beginning with a 4-3 setback in the 2009 section championship game, Gilroy has lost the last four meetings with the Balers by a combined five runs.

Looking at last season alone, the Balers won a pair of one-run games, first triumphant 1-0 in Hollister then shocking the host Mustangs 5-4 in extra innings on the final day of the season. GHS led 4-2 with two out in the top of the seventh, before then-junior Nicole Rianda tied matters with a two-run home run. The Balers later won it in the ninth to prevent the Mustangs from capturing a co-championship.

“A lot of my seniors have lost to them one too many times,” Berggren said.

Earlier this season, the Balers (20-1) trumped the Mustangs once again, holding on for a 4-2 win in Gilroy. San Benito has been ranked as high as No. 25 in the nation on the ESPN Rise Powerade Fab 50 list.

Though history is against them, Berggren said this year’s group hides their emotions – win or lose – well. And that characteristic, Berggren said, could bode well in what is assuredly going to be a playoff-like atmosphere.

“They don’t get down,” she said. “They bounce back and keep moving forward. They seem to play better under that pressure.”

The Mustangs’ (20-3, 7-1 TCAL) mentality may be in order this time around, but it’s their offense that must make a statement. GHS will have to contend with Balers’ ace Paige Miguel in the circle and must do so without leading hitter Casey Lester (.471 average, 17 runs scored.) Lester injured her shoulder during practice two weeks ago and has been out of the lineup.

Miguel is a crafty veteran with an innate command of her pitches and the strike zone who is rarely flustered in big games.

“She has great command and moves the ball in and out very well,” Berggren said of Miguel. “We are going to have to hit her mistakes. We can’t try and do too much with what she gives us.”

Mustangs’ go-to hurler, Sarah Lorraine Lira, will make her first appearance in the circle since a 12-0 victory at Christopher on April 21. Lira has been resting a sore ankle since the win, but Berggren said her senior is ready to go.

The Mustangs have played without both Lira and Lester in narrow triumphs against Notre Dame 9-8 and most recently North Salinas 10-8 on Friday.

No matter the outcome today, the Mustangs will make the playoffs. Entering as TCAL co-champs, though, would make this year’s postseason trip all the sweeter.

First pitch is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Hollister.

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