As the El Camino Real softball team gathered for the season following the winter holiday break, they prepared to move into a new trailer that would serve as their locker room.
When the team got its first look inside, the players saw a white chalkboard in the middle of the room. There was a sentence written there.
“2016 City Champs.”
It was a calculated psychological nudge by first-year coach Jodi Borenstein. Although the school already had 14 City Section softball championship banners, the Conquistadors had not won one since 2012. The current group of seniors had never played in a final.
But this team — which signed their names to the board as proof of their commitment to winning — ended ECR’s championship “drought,” if you will, with a stirring 2-1 walkoff victory in 10 innings over Banning High of Wilmington, in the City Section Division I title game played May 21 at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson.
A RBI double by Annie Moore with two out in the bottom of the 10th,scored Madi Gilmore with the deciding run. It concluded a marvelous pitching duel between the Conquistadors’ Emma Jackson and the Pilots’ Leah Gonzales, both seniors.
The reaction by El Camino Real was one of pure joy. The players exploded out of their dugout as soon as Gilmore touched the plate, then mobbed Moore at second base. “The celebration was pretty good,” said Moore, a sophomore. “I couldn’t believe when I got tackled.”
And then the tears flowed — on both sides.
For Banning (26-10), seeded second and the visiting team, the heartbreak was immense after having played so well. As for the Conquistadors (24-9), the top seed, it was a combination of ecstasy and relief. The pressure they had put on themselves to win it all was just as palatable as the pressure Banning had applied in the actual game.
Borenstein, an assistant to former coach Lori Chandler before taking over this school year, noted there were tears after the come-from-behind victory against Kennedy in the quarterfinals, and the victory against Port of Los Angeles in the semifinal, as well as the win over Banning.
“The three most emotional games of the year for us,” the coach said.
It always went back to the signed chalkboard.
“I said I was putting this up as a goal, and to believe it,” Borenstein said. “They loved it. It was their commitment. We kept their door shut in the trailer so no one else saw it. It was not about arrogance. It was a goal. That’s all they wanted.
“I know how much they wanted to win this year. They had worked for this. Nobody knows how hard they worked except these girls.”
The Banning game proved to be a most challenging final. The Conquistadors took a 1-0 lead in the third — Moore driving in Gilmore here, too, with a single — but ECR was not doing much against Gonzales; they scratched out only three hits in the first nine innings.
“Their pitcher was amazing,” an admiring Jackson said afterward.
Jackson was an escape artist on the mound. The Pilots peppered her for 10 hits, and wound up stranding 10 runners. Their only breakthrough came in the top of the sixth, when Banning hit four straight singles — the last by Topanga Zamora — to tie the score. And they would leave the bases loaded in the sixth.
“The got ahold of me (in the sixth),” Jackson said. “I don’t know if I was leaving pitches over the plate. But they did a really good job.”
Banning threatened again in the seventh and the 10th. But Jackson bore down every time she had to, and her teammates played errorless defense behind her.
Then came the end, as El Camino put together three two-out hits in the bottom of the 10th, with Moore delivering the final blow.
The question hovering over the field: should the Pilots have pitched to Moore (who finished the day with three hits)? Yes there were runners already on first and second when she came to bat, and loading the bases would put the game-winning run at third where it would be much easier to score on any kind of play. But she had also been the toughest ECR hitter for Gonzales to retire.
“Maybe in hindsight, yes,” Banning Coach Gary Kern said afterward. “But we weren’t thinking like that.”
So Borenstein can celebrate her first championship as a head coach. And she appreciates her willful group of Conquistadors.
“This team was a lot of fun to coach. I enjoyed going to practice every day and that is how it should be. There never was a day they were down, They were having a good time, because they wanted it so bad.
“We were serious when we needed to be and had a good time doing it,” she said.