The Gilroy Junior All Stars are the best in the west.
The Northern California State Championships knocked off Montana 3-2 and 8-3 in a double-header Thursday to punch their ticket to Junior League Softball World Series. The tournament kicks off 2:30 p.m. Sunday with pool play against the Eastern Champions, West Cumberland Little League from New Jersey.
“The girls have been keeping their composure,” Gilroy coach Nelson Villanueva said. “I don’t think half of us even slept last night because the adrenaline was so high. We fought so hard.”
The road through the Western Regionals was anything but easy for Gilroy. After dropping its second game of the tournament, an 11-7 decision to Montana, the team had to fight its way back through the losers bracket. Gilroy was the only team that had to play eight games at Regionals.
“It was uncharacteristic of us,” Villanueva said of his 32-1 team. “It was a huge wake-up call for our girls. We don’t lose games like that. If we’re going to lose, they’re going to have earn it. It’s that NorCal pride, that Gilroy pride.”
Wins over Washington, Utah, Southern California and Alaska led to a showdown against a team who had put them in the losers bracket to begin with — Montana.
Montana took the lead early, scoring a run in second and third innings to lead 2-0. Gilroy was in a do or die situation in the bottom of the seventh. This was the team’s last at bat — it was win or go home.
Julie Rodriguez-Vela hit a lead off single for Gilroy and advanced to second off a Liezl Clark single. Rodriguez-Vela was caught stealing, but Clark advanced to second off a passed ball. Michaela Decker doubled to left field, scoring Clark and putting Gilroy on the board for the first time in the game.
Nikki Villanueva followed suite, doubling to centerfield to score Clark and tie the game at 2-2. Cynthia Del Real hit a single, which was good enough to push Villanueva across the plate for the win.
“It’s incredible; it’s been crazy,” Nelson Villanueva said. “To have those three games where we came back in our last at bat, it’s just crazy.”
Decker went 3 for 3 with a double, RBI and run scored. Villanueva was 2 for 4 with a double, RBI and run scored, while Clark went 2 for 4 with a run.
Maria Sandoval went the distance, allowing eight hits, two runs and two walks while striking out six in seven innings of work.
Game 2 was a different story; Gilroy jumped out to an early 3-2 lead and never looked back. The team scored two runs in the second, and run in the third, fourth and sixth innings to claim the title of Western Regional Champions.
Clark went 2 for 3 with a double, RBI and three runs scored. Decker was 1 for 3 with a triple and two runs scored. Del Real went 2 for 4 with a RBI.
Briannalee Moreno got the win in the circle for Gilroy. She pitched four innings, allowing only two hits and one run while striking out four.
It’s been a wild ride for the girls from Gilroy, who almost didn’t have a team this season. Nelson Villanueva said that the pull of travel ball and lack of support from the Little League Board left him fighting to save his team.
He has also had to face the group of doubters, who had lost faith in him after reaching the Western Regionals for the past three years but never getting to the big dance. It was the sole goal of coach Villanueva, his assistant coaches and the 11 girls that bare the Gilroy Little League logo on their uniforms to prove everyone wrong.
“The girls are always the ones bringing back the pennants,” coach Villanueva said. “It’s a no brainer, they’ve got to start treating them better. A lot of these girls are friends and they’ve played with us for the last three years and had their heart broken at the Western Regional.…
“I don’t have the best 11 softball players from Gilroy, but I have the best 11 girls that make a team — that’s what’s important. For most of these girls, it’s just the pride of representing Gilroy.”
But it’s not just the girls that Villanueva is thankful for, it’s his coaches too. He said he couldn’t have reached this level without his supporting cast of Dave Cox and George Sandoval. Villanueva gives credit to his coaches for helping to take a lot of the burden off of him during the long, grueling season.
“I’m lucky that I’m able to coach these girls but he (George) laid the foundation,” coach Villanueva said. “He’s put the most time into it. He’s been coaching Little League for at 18, 20 years. I’m so happy with my coaching staff. … I tried it before without them, but it took so much off my plate to have them.”
The team departs Arizona today and will fly directly to Washington to prepare to square off against the best junior softball teams in the world. But for Villanueva, the hard part is over. The monkey that is the Western Regional tournament is off the teams’ back, now they can finally enjoy what they’ve missed out on the past three years — the World Series.
“I think the Western Region is tougher than the World Series,” coach Villanueva said. “The competition level in the West is so high — they always do well. Alaska won it all last year. We obviously want to win it all and finish first but we should not do no worse than fifth place.”
The following is the schedule for the West team — Gilroy Junior Softball — for pool play in the World Series tournament.
Aug. 11 vs. East (West Cumberland, N.J.) at 2:30 p.m.
Aug. 12 vs. Europe & Africa (Emilia, Italy) at 2 p.m.
Aug. 13 vs. Southwest (Columbus, Texas) at 10:45 a.m.
Aug. 14 vs. Latin America (Mexicali BC, Mexico) at 11 a.m.
The Gilroy Junior All Stars are the best in the west.