Before the spring 2017 softball season, Santa Ynez High went two years without a victory – going 0-38 in that span.

But the Pirates’ season ended in Irvine at the CIF Southern Section Division 7 title game in June – which also put a close on a stunning turnaround on the diamond.

And Santa Ynez’s D7 championship appearance, plus erasing that 38-game slide with a 20-8 season is Lee Central Coast Newspapers’ No. 8 top story of 2017.

Spearheading that turnaround was the head coach of those 0-19 teams: Denicia Gills. Even though the losses were stacking up, Gills told her players a simple three words during the 2016 season.

“Hang in there.”

Gills believed the next group of Pirate softball players would ultimately change the fortunes of the program. The younger group of Pirates came from previously successful softball teams at the youth level.

Things not only turned around quick, but the Pirates nearly added a CIFSS championship banner along their home fence. And that young group instantly led the charge – from LCCN Most Valuable Player Armani Garcia to All-Los Padres League first team selection Yesenia Vega.

But there were others. Maggie Usher earned the nickname “The Crusher” for her knack for blasting the softball out of the park. The sophomore became one of the top home run hitters for the Pirates. Jocelyn Casteneda and Alycia Lowery emerged as .300 batters as a freshman and sophomore, respectively. 

And the eldest player on the roster – Anastazia Garcia – led by example and verbally throughout the entire season.

The 2017 campaign began with a 4-0 start. And the Pirates never endured consecutive losses throughout the course of the year. Gills told LCCN back in July that the players’ confidence soared throughout that D7 run.

“Absolutely, there was a time when the confidence kept increasing,” Gills told LCCN. “These girls worked hard all year.”

Gills added that the original idea was to take baby steps on improving. But that slow build became something more.

“At the beginning of the season, we set one goal – finish fourth and make the playoffs. Then we figured, ‘Hey, we can do this. We have a chance to win the league championship.’ That didn’t happen, but we had an idea of what we could do,” Gills told LCCN.

Defensively, Armani Garcia went on to strike out 152 batters inside the circle. Twenty one of those batters swung and missed in front of Garcia during the playoffs. She went on to compile a 14-4 record on the mound. Garcia was reflective of the D7 run after earning the All-Area MVP honor in July. 

"This school's softball team is usually not known for winning many games. But this year, with winning the games and being able to get as far as we did was a great experience for me," Garcia said. 

Next year’s team already looks like a threat for both the LPL title and a CIF run. Only Anastazia Garcia is gone from the team. The reigning MVP Armani Garcia returns, so does Usher, Casteneda, Lowery and the other girls who revised the fortunes of Santa Ynez High softball. 

Next: No. 8, where a local baseball team makes a remarkable run in the postseason.

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Sports Reporter