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IRVINE — Right before Maggie Usher tried racing to home plate in the top of the seventh inning, she immediately looked back at the final out near third base, then dropped her head and eyes toward the Deanna Manning Stadium dirt – signifying Santa Ynez’s historic softball run coming to an end.

The Pirates, who were once a combined 0-38 in the last two seasons before their first CIF title chase this spring, surrendered three home runs and fell to the top seed Sun Valley Village Christian 7-4 at Irvine’s Bill Barber Memorial Park on Friday for the Southern Section’s Division 7 championship. 

After accepting their CIF runner up awards, a tearful Pirates group gathered behind the softball field – with their head coach Denicia Gills and assistant Benny Garcia reminding the girls how far they came.

“They have so much to be proud of,” Gills said. “They need to be proud of the story, the process and the work they put in. They need to hold their head high and come back and do it again because really, we want to be back here again next year.”

Santa Ynez (20-8) ignited itself in the top of the first inning through Usher and Anastazia Garcia, as both blasted doubles that drove one runner to home plate each – making it 2-0.

The Crusaders (20-10), though, went into an early attack mode themselves through the silver bats, as Village Christian’s Kaylani Miller and Ally Melgar smashed two home runs in the bottom of the first inning – the latter sending the green ball over the center field bar for the two-run blast that made it 3-2 Village Christian.

Santa Ynez would then tack on two more runs to retake the lead at 4-3, spearheaded by a Yesenia Vega base hit RBI.

Both pitchers, including Santa Ynez’s freshman fast-riser Armani Garcia, started to settle down in the circle for the next three innings – until MacKenzie Hofmann picked up the bat in the bottom of the fifth.

The freshman third base player smashed her two-run home run bomb toward center field, clearing the yellow rail and putting the Crusaders back up 5-4. Gills said that hit provided the difference for the designated home team on the Irvine field.  

“They have huge hitters. We did our research and we knew. But at the end of the day, the home run that did us in was hers at the bottom of the lineup. She did a great job,” Gills said.

Village Christian loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the sixth, but mustered just two sacrifice RBI’s that brought Katie Ross and Bella Orozco home. The winning pitcher Melgar left two Pirate runners stranded at second and first to seal the program’s first CIF title since 2003.

Gills and Garcia tried lifting a dejected Pirates team spirits’ up after accepting their plaque. Anastazia Garcia wanted to leave this message to the players she’ll leave behind, as she now prepares for a college career at Santa Barbara City College next spring.

“Just prove everyone wrong again,” a tearful Garcia said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in us this season, so prove them wrong again and go out and play hard.”

As for Gills, she’s aware the secret is out now – Santa Ynez softball is on the rise and the bar is officially set even higher for 2018.

“People know our name now,” Gills said. “We’re very much looking into coming in stronger. Next year, people are expecting that to happen. We’re looking forward to telling the freshmen and the other girls ‘Expect to be here next year because we want to do this again.’” 

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Sports Reporter