RENO – If there was a team ready to confidently stare in the face of adversity, it was Spanish Springs. They did it all year.
And now the Cougars are DI state champions.
After unraveling in the seventh inning of Saturday’s first game against Rancho (31-9) at Hixson Park and falling 6-2, the Cougars (28-15) willed their way to a 2-1 win in the ‘if necessary’ game and the tears of triumph started flowing. It was the Cougars fourth state title in 10 years, their first since 2010.
“We had a talk with the team in the outfield (after the loss),” Spanish Springs senior ace Hayley Fein said. “We just talked about having confidence in each other and working hard because we got to this point. We can’t stop now.”
The unlikely championship provided a soft landing for a team that had to move its share of rocks off the road in 2016. The Cougars, the regional runners up, only got into the tournament because the DI North was awarded two state berths this year. They entered with nearly as many losses (14) as the other three teams in the field (Reed, Rancho and Shadow Ridge) combined (15).
A plague of dramas that included a season-ending injury to one of the team’s best players, Bailey Ivory, led to the Cougs getting out of the gates with just a 5-4 record – with a league loss at McQueen and a 1-3 stint in Reed’s annual Easter Weekend Tournament.
In the first round of the DI North regional tournament, they needed a pair of late home runs to avoid being upset by seventh-seeded Galena.
So no, the Cougars were never the favorites to win the state title. They weren’t even picked to win the league title by the DI North coaches. They didn’t receive a single first place vote in the preseason poll.
Add it all up and the Cougars’ run to the title will rank as one of the most improbable in state history. That’s not hyperbole.
“The way it started, it was rough. We had a lot of adversity this year,” said Spanish Springs coach Jeff Davidson, whose sunglasses shielded watery eyes. “I told the girls they needed to finish every game. And they came together and finished the season on a high note.”
Symbolic of this season’s grind, it was never easy in the title-clinching victory. Fein maneuvered out of trouble all day after surrendering 10 hits. She forced the Rams to go 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and strand 11 on base.
Tiara Lee finally put the Rams on the board in the bottom of the seventh with a sac fly to center for the second out. Then with the tying run at first, and the winning run at the plate, Fein, who was “sick to her stomach,” got Kat Anthony to bounce one to Ryan Hauder at first. Hauder won the foot race to the bag. The party was on.
“It’s the best feeling ever. I can’t really explain it,” Fein said. “It’s overwhelming.”
In the top of the sixth inning, the bases were full of Rams with two outs and leadoff hitter Lili Gutierrez coming to the plate. Gutierrez was 3-for-3 going into the at bat. Fein got Gutierrez to ground out to third.
In the third inning, a pop up pulled Fein out of the first two-out, bases-loaded jam of the day.
In the second inning, Fein danced out of a second-and-third jam with two outs thanks to a pop up to catcher Kourtney Townsend.
“They are fighters. They fought until the end,” Rancho coach Amanda Zuno said. “The girls left it on the field, at the plate.”
Spanish Springs managed just three hits off Rancho pitcher Sam Pochop with both runs coming on one swing from an unpredictable source in the top of the fourth. The at bat shouldn’t have even happened, either.
Fein hit a ground ball to short and an on-target throw to first would’ve ended the inning. The toss went wide, however, into the Cougars’ dugout, which allowed Fein to advance to second.
Davidson then called on sophomore Cami Moore, who had only one extra base hit to her credit this season, to pinch hit.
Now, she has two extra base hits.
She smashed a Pochop offering well beyond the fence in left for what proved to be a game-winning two-run bomb.
“I just saw my favorite inside pitch and I just swung right off it,” Moore said. “I thought it wasn’t going to go and then I looked. And it was gone … It feels amazing.”
Said Davidson: “I just had a gut feeling to go with Cami in that spot and she came through big time.”
They took the road less traveled. But it took them to a familiar spot.
The Cougars are state champions.
Rancho 6, Spanish Springs 2
The Cougars were not without their chances to win it all in the first game on Saturday.
Fein retired 13 straight batters at one point but the offense couldn’t capitalize against Pochop and the game remained deadlocked at 1-1 going to the seventh. Then it all fell apart.
A leadoff walk to Pochop (the Rams’ first base runner since the second inning), a single and an error loaded the bases with no outs. The Rams went on to score five times on a single, two bases loaded walks, a rare 8-6 fielder’s choice and another RBI single. Rancho only had three hits (all singles) in the game-deciding inning that looked awfully familiar.
Rancho scored seven times in the top of the second inning in Friday’s elimination game victory over Reed, on just four hits.
Immediately after Rancho took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second, Spanish Springs pulled even in the bottom of the inning. Amidori Anderson belted an RBI double off the wall in straightaway center but was left there.
The Cougars threated to take a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth when Kourtney Townsend blooped a single to right and advanced to second when the ball trickled away on a dive attempt. The next three hitters failed to get the ball out of the infield.