Freshman sensation Ariela Yslava has pitched like an ace early in the season. Yslava is part of a dynamic freshmen class that has Gilroy poised to stay in CCS title contention for years to come. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.
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Last year, the Gilroy High softball team got hot at the right time to surprise even themselves in winning the program’s fourth Central Coast Section championship.

This season, the Mustangs will more than likely have a big target on their back as they are off to an impressive 6-1 start that has everyone around the program brimming with excitement. That’s because a deep and talented freshmen class has made a huge impact right off the bat. 

The emergence of the freshmen and the returning sophomores have eased the loss of six starters from last year’s CCS championship winning team, which entered the postseason 3-10 before reeling off three consecutive victories to capture the Division III title. 

“We have a bunch of talented freshmen playing good and now it’s just about them learning the mental side of the game,” said Dusty Lester, who is in his third season as the Gilroy coach but 12th overall with the program. “I’ve been really pleased with their enthusiasm, hustle and effort. This is also the most depth we’ve had in a while and that always helps because it’s always good to have girls push each other for playing time and position.”

The Mustangs won their first five games before running into West Catholic and national power St. Francis, which went 24-0 last season and is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. The 10-0 defeat wasn’t all that bad considering the team welcomed back top returner Xochitl Garcia, the junior standout who was recovering from an injury. 

While Garcia was absent, the team was in good hands with freshman sensation pitcher Ariela Yslava, whose emergence gives Gilroy a formidable 1-2 punch in the circle. Yslava tossed a complete-game, three-hitter with 12 strikeouts in a 7-2 victory over San Mateo on March 8, a performance that would only be surprising if she hadn’t been doing that all season. 

“Ariela is doing a really good job,” Lester said. “She has all the pitches: curve, rise, drop, screwball and changeup. She’s hitting the ball really good, too.”

Freshman first baseman/outfielder Dani Wilson started the season at the leadoff spot and is valuable as a left-handed slap hitter who can also swing away for extra bases. Gilroy could wreak havoc on the basepaths all season as it did against San Mateo, finishing a perfect 4 for 4 on steal attempts. 

“Our overall team speed is pretty good,” Lester said. “Even our catcher (Lilian Mendoza) runs well.”

Which is significant because most catchers are on the slower end than fast. Mendoza blasted a home run in the San Mateo game, and fellow freshmen Lily Dale and Jennie Hernandez nearly had home runs as well. Hernandez plays third base, has been hitting third and is an excellent contact, line-drive hitter.

Yslava was hitting second, Mendoza cleanup and Dale mans the outfield but also is the team’s backup catcher. Sophomore shortstop Addie Hulbert, junior center fielder Aaliyah Cordova, freshman second baseman Allie Alfaro and right fielder Kaylin Battaglia—the only returning senior on the team—will make strong contributions throughout the season. 

Lester has utilized freshman Leilany Martinez and sophomore Jazmine Gonzalez as pinch-runners, and he said both of them have been exceptional in their role. Erin Castro, a returning sophomore outfielder, has excelled as has returning junior Catarina Correia.

Skill-wise, the team doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Now it’s all about the younger players gaining the necessary experience and fundamentals which could lift the team back into the section’s very elite, possibly this season if everything goes right. 

“We’ve had some really good teams in the past, and this team has a chance to do some special things not just this year but in the years ahead,” Lester said. “They still have a lot to learn on the mental side of the game, but they’ve all done a good job.”

From now on, Gilroy’s annual home game against Christopher—this season it’s on March 22—will be called the Sarah Villar Memorial Game. A former Gilroy High softball player, Villar was killed by a drunk driver last June as she walked with her fiance along Sunnyslope Road in Hollister. 

The tragic incident came just two days after the Mustangs had won the CCS championship. Villar was 32. 

“Sarah was a mainstay here at Gilroy for a long time,” Lester said. “She was one of my daughter’s mentors.”

Lester’s daughter, Casey, came up with the idea for a memorial game and the two brought the idea to Christopher High coach Amanda Tellez, who was a teammate of Villar at Gilroy. 

“Amanda was all for it and we’ve also had a really good response from the community,” Lester said. “Sarah’s brother Brandon lives in the area and he was moved by it. This is another thing to keep Gilroy strong and Gilroy together.”

Lester said Travis Graham—the owner of One Life Prints—knew Villar all his life and decided to make a banner that will be unveiled in the pregame ceremonies and bolstered to the far end of the right-field fence. Amid tragic circumstances, the Gilroy softball program will make sure Villar is never forgotten. 

The March 22 Sarah Villar Memorial Game has a start time of 4:30pm, with pregame ceremonies before that. Tellez and Casey Lester are writing a remembrance speech of Villar, whose death affected countless in the Gilroy community. 

“I’m sure it’s going to be really emotional because Sarah was an amazing person,” Dusty Lester said.

Gilroy High sophomore Jazmine Gonzalez returns to the dugout after scoring in a 6-1 win over Leland High on March 3. The Mustangs have several freshmen and sophomores who are excelling. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.

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