Clovis News: Sports

Buchanan softball earns rematch for D-I title

It's Buchanan and Stockdale highs in a sequel for the Central Section Division I softball championship.

Or is that really possible?

It's true that they'll play again for the gold, this time Friday at Buchanan at 4:30 p.m. after the No. 1 Bears beat No. 5 Clovis 13-6 Wednesday behind Bailey O'Dell's two three-run homers, and the No. 2 Mustangs defeated No. 3 Clovis West 2-0 in Bakersfield.

And a rematch in the circle is likely with Buchanan's Natalie Rendon (21-3) opposing Stockdale's Justin Vela (16-6), who struck out the first nine batters she faced and 14 in all against the Golden Eagles.

But surely that's where the similarities will cease.

Last year, at Stockdale, Rendon had deposited a 5-0 shutout in the bank -- or so she and her teammates thought -- after they began celebrating following what appeared to be a game-ending strikeout. But after Bears catcher Rushael Lawley flipped the ball into the air, the home plate umpire ruled a dropped third strike and the batter reached first in a game Buchanan would then win 5-3 to close a 26-7-1 season.

The Bears (32-3), ranked 15th in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, seem even more qualified this time, and no matter that they start eight underclassmen.

"It's probably the best defensive team we've had, even though we didn't show it tonight," said O'Dell, a junior shortstop and three-year starter.

O'Dell and second baseman Dom Selby did turn a slick double play in the seventh inning, but that was only after Buchanan made four errors, including two in a five-run Clovis fourth that put the skids on what was quickly building toward a mercy rule conquest by the Bears.

"I told my players if you play defense like that Friday, you're not going to win," Buchanan seven-year coach Dean Gregory said. "We're a good defensive team; it just kind of snowballed. This is the best defensive team I've had. We have a team fielding percentage of .972, and that's pretty solid."

In a matchup involving the section's most successful programs of the past two decades -- Clovis has seven D-I titles, Buchanan four -- a Bears 9-1 lead was suddenly 9-6 after the Cougars' rally highlighted by Tiffani Balladares' double and singles by Megan Grant, Kassidy Walker and Shannon Ramsden.

But Rendon, a junior righthander who has fought through back, hip and knee injuries this season, calmed the waters with 32/3 innings of shutout relief.

Buchanan pounded away wire-to-wire with a 16-hit attack as O'Dell had plenty of help, notably from Sam Mendoza, who went 4 for 5 with a home run and three RBIs while hitting behind her in the No. 5 hole.

Asked to compare this team with last year's, Gregory said: "The difference is we've been No. 1 [ranked in the section] all year. Last year, we kind of snuck up on everybody. This year, we've had a target on our backs all year. It's exciting to be in the championship again. Obviously, that's what you play for all season."

O'Dell will storm into the title game after taking two distinctly different approaches with the home runs.

The first, in a seven-run second, was a towering drive over the center-field wall.

The second, in the sixth, was a sinking line drive that skipped by Cougars diving center fielder Whitney Byrom.