M. Terry / SFVS

Softball BFFs — (l-r) Cassie Swenson, Elizabeth Flores, Jackie Jacobson and Caitlyn Pineda symbolize the togetherness  that defines the Cleveland team.

The last four years have been pretty special, admits Cleveland High senior outfielder Elizabeth Flores. She’s had a chance to be a varsity softball player all four years. She’s seen her team grow from a collection of girls just having fun into a group genuinely challenging to win the always competitive West Valley League.

Most important — she believes she’s made a connection with a group of people who could turn out to be lifetime friends.

“To me the way we got along, it was immediate,” said Flores, 18. “It has always been that feeling.”

Flores’ assertions are supported by teammates Jackie Jacobson, Cassie Swenson and Caitlyn Pineda. Their responses about the collective team closeness don’t come off sounding robotic, or by rote. There seems to be a genuine sisterhood wearing visors, cleats and batting gloves.

“Like every family we can fight and butt heads,” said Jacobson, 18, a right-handed pitcher and also a senior. “But at the end of the day we’re each other’s sisters and we have each other’s backs. 

“That’s a key component I’ve always noticed in the years I’ve been in this program. If I’m having a rough day, I come to softball practice and my teammates pick me up. It’s important with a team of this nature because we all come from different backgrounds  and different levels of play. But we all come together. We mesh well.”

They certainly are meshing well this season. As of Tuesday, April 10, the Cavaliers were 10-3 overall, 2-1 in the West Valley League, and started the week with an eight-game winning streak that was ended Monday by El Camino Real Charter. (The results of Wednesday’s game against Birmingham were not available at press time. They have a rematch with ECR on Friday.)

Winning often is a great deodorant in team sports. It can cover decay from jealousy, envy, or complacency that could turn the best of teams into cliques. As Swenson, 16, a junior and power-hitting shortstop with six home runs, likes to point out, “If we did not like each other I don’t know if we could play well.”

But good vibrations are a part of everything Cleveland does when it comes to the game, and the team.

“We try our best on the field,” said Pineda, 17, a senior and outfielder. “We go 100 percent, whether we win or lose. We’re still proud of ourselves because we always fight, no matter what….I feel we are so connected now.”

Marcia Muller Garcia, now in her third season as head coach, deserves some credit for the growth of the team and the program.  Each year, this grouping of players has gotten a little better under her watch. In 2016 they won 12 games. Last year it was 13, which matched their highest win total since 2007. And this season, with seven returning starters, they seem well on their way to surpassing that total.

“They have become a team, very cohesive,” Garcia said. “They have always been a great bunch. But sometimes it’s been a matter of what group shows up: the ones playing their ‘A’ game, or ones just playing.

“[But] I want them to be able to come out ahead, regardless of the outcome. The ‘philosophy’ here is of working together, being enthusiastic, playing intense, but having fun. And I’m hoping to provide them lifelong memories they can have after playing.”

Garcia said the team took a big step forward last year when  it beat El Camino Real and Chatsworth twice in league play “for the first time in school history.” And the Cavaliers finished second in the West Valley to Granada Hills Charter by one game “the closest we’ve come” to winning the league, Flores said.

The only downer: the past two years Cleveland has been eliminated in the City Section Division I playoffs in their first game. Last year it was by Poly, 1-0, in the second round.

It doesn’t have to be said that this is the last chance for Flores, Jacobson and the other seniors here to embark on some kind of postseason run. But they won’t be consumed by pressure or desperation.

For that they also credit Garcia.

“She’s one of those very few coaches that doesn’t yell a lot,” said Jacobson, who also competes in volleyball and water polo for Cleveland. “I’ve been on teams where the coach is barking and yelling all the time which, honestly, doesn’t do much in my opinion. But she knows that we know when we’re doing wrong, and she knows how to get on us about us.”

Adds Pineda, “She addresses the problem and is very calm about it, without just getting in your face and making it worse.”

For her part, Garcia said she never wants her players to lose sight of being high school students and kids.

“The kids we have here have good heads on their shoulders, and we emphasize students first,” Garcia said. “If you can’t make it in the classroom and be responsible there…that says a lot about you and your work ethic.

“It would be nice to win league, but I think the girls like the overall big picture more. And it is about the girls.”

Make that The Sisterhood.