It may take some time for the Grant Lancers to realize — and appreciate — what happened at the Los Angeles City Section Division III softball championship game on Saturday, May 19.
Oh, the results — an 8-5 loss to Fairfax High of Los Angeles — are etched in stone. But what the crowd who braved the early morning (8 a.m.) starting time might have witnessed was not the final game for Grant of 2018 season, but the beginnings of a true, competitive program.
Both teams were trying to win their first City softball championship on Saturday. But the Lancers (16-10) were also striving for relevancy under second-year Coach Mario Guzman. Last year Grant won just six games overall, and was winless in East Valley League play. The 2016 season? The overall record stood at 1-13. In fact, you have to go back to 2010 to find the last time the Lancers had a winning season (15-8-1).
“We [now] know what it takes to get here,” Guzman said afterward. “When I took over, these girls weren’t winning much…but this year we turned it around. This season’s record is something these girls never would have imagined. But they put in the work. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Of course getting to play for a championship is one thing. Winning a title is something else. And losing is the hardest thing of all — at least in the moment — if your chances of winning were within reach.
Half of the Lancers’ 14-player roster is eligible to return next season. Those who do should carry this memory along with their bats, gloves and cleats.
Grant, the bracket’s second seed, furiously battled Fairfax for six of the game’s seven innings. The Lions — who were the top seed despite an overall losing record (11-12) — had a firecracker on the mound in freshman Anissa Acosta, who was the winning pitcher in all of the team’s victories this season, and also led Fairfax with 27 hits while batting .466.
Acosta’s searing fastball and drifting changeup caused 13 Lancers to strike out. And her two-run homer to left in the bottom of the third off Lancers starter Natalie Nodar reversed an early Grant 1-0 lead and put Fairfax ahead 3-1.
“That was her only hit of the day, and she must have hit it about 250 feet,” Guzman said of Acosta, with grudging admiration. “She’s a ballplayer; I’ll give it to her.”
But Grant would outhit Fairfax this day (6 to 5). And the Lions defense would also commit five errors behind Acosta, keeping her constantly in trouble.
The Lancers would close to within 3-2 in the top of the fifth thanks to alert baserunning by Cindy Nanez — who scored on an errant throw by Fairfax catcher Carolina Vazquez-Herrera back to Acosta — and then forge ahead with three runs in the top of the sixth highlighted by a two-run single by Carerra Dillard.
The Lancers could not hold the lead, however.
Acosta led off Fairfax’s half of the sixth, and Guzman decided to walk her intentionally, which brought the tying run to the plate. “(And in hindsight) I still would have done it,” the coach said. What followed was the pivotal play of the game. With one out, Aileen Juarez hit a grounder to Lancers second baseman who momentarily fumbled the ball. She may still have had time to throw out Juarez at first, but decided to try for Acosta, who beat the throw to second base. Instead of two outs and one on, there was still only one out and two runners on base.
That was the momentum-changer the Lions needed. Before Nodar and Grant could get out of the inning, Fairfax would turn four hits and a run-scoring out into five runs and an 8-5 lead.
The Fairfax rally took all the joy out of Grant. Acosta retired the Lancers in order in the seventh — the only time it happened in the game.
The loss will probably sting throughout the summer. Grant had its hands around a City championship and it slipped away.
But it might not take years again to have a winning record or have another deep playoff run.
“I have some solid JV kids coming up,” Guzman said.” And my goal coming in was to build a program.”
Right now that is a worthy enough goal.