|May 19, 2017, 05:00 AM By Nathan Mollat, Daily Journal|
The San Mateo softball team’s win over Salinas in the first round of the Central Coast Section Division tournament Tuesday wasn’t surprising because the 15th-seeded Bearcats upset the second-seeded Cowboys at the Salinas Sports Complex.
What opened eyes is what San Mateo represents. The Bearcats gained the Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division’s lone automatic bid to CCS. As a “C” league in the CCS hierarchy, the Ocean doesn’t get a lot of respect around the rest of the section.
And why should it? Since the PAL went to the power structure now used, only one Ocean Division champion has won a CCS game: 17 years ago, when Hillsdale knocked off Saratoga in the first round of Division III bracket in 2000.
Since then, it’s been one-and-done for Ocean Division teams.
Until the Bearcats came along and dealt an always-strong Salinas program a 7-0 loss.
“I wouldn’t blame them (for thinking the Ocean Division doesn’t belong),” said San Mateo’s first-year head coach Alyssa Jepsen. “We had to prove to those people that we belong.”
Things didn’t start well for San Mateo, which lost its starting first baseman, Emily Savage, to the emergency room because of a cashew allergy.
But as so happens in these Hollywood-type stories, Savage’s replacement had the game of her life. Sophia Jaro, the only senior on the Bearcats’ roster, has been the ultimate utility player for the Bearcats this season. Jepsen said she has played every position but catcher this season. So it was karma when Jaro was inserted into the lineup as the starting first baseman and jump-started a rally with a two-run, two-out homer.
“As a batter, and this is probably not the thing to do, but I think a lot,” Jaro said, who had a 2-0 count after watching a pair of curveballs out of the strike zone.
“She’s got to throw me a strike,” Jaro said she was thinking.
The Salinas pitcher did throw a strike and Jaro deposited over the center-field fence to drive in Kylie Galea, who was on second.
“[Jaro] is going to leave here having said, ‘What a great way to end my (high school) career,’” Jepsen said.
San Mateo (16-7) scored two runs in the first and added three more in the third to put all the pressure on the Cowboys and they did not handle the pitching of Isabelle Borges well.
Jepsen said Borges was on point with her off-speed stuff, spinning curveballs and deadening changeups masterfully.
“I call her effectively slow and her spin is immaculate,” Jepsen said. “It’s constantly changing speeds. It’s tough for big hitters. They don’t want to wait.”
Jaro said the Bearcats started to see the Cowboys tightening up as the game went along and San Mateo took advantage.
“When you see them down, you jump on them,” Jaro said.
And as is usually the case, the defense gave its pitcher a couple of big assists. Jepsen said center fielder Jada Walker made two highlight-reel plays, making a diving catch on one batter and later gunning down a runner at the plate.
San Mateo’s win was not only big in the larger sense for the PAL as a whole, but it was also significant for the Bearcats’ program as well. This is only the third-ever appearance in CCS for San Mateo softball and it was the school’s first-ever CCS victory.
“That’s a great accomplishment,” said Monet Scheller, the Bearcats catcher. “We’ve come so far.”
That may not seem like much for a lot of teams, but you can’t win a CCS title without winning a CCS game first.
“It’s been a long journey for me and it’s a humbling experience,” Jaro said, who is playing for her fourth coach in as many years. “I walked on this (San Mateo) field as a freshman and the goal was to make CCS. … There have been some great players before me who never made CCS. Being the only senior on the team, this how you go out with a bang.”
And the Bearcats aren’t done yet. They face seventh-seeded Homestead (18-10) in a quarterfinal game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale. Homestead, which beat 10th-seeded Milpitas 12-2 Wednesday, is one of the most successful public school programs in CCS and its schedule is a who’s who of the top programs in the section. San Mateo will have its work cut out for it if the Bearcats want to continue this Cinderella run.
Jepsen, however, is pragmatic about her team’s next opponent — or any opponent, for that matter.
“Nameless, faceless enemies,” is how Jepsen said she goes about preparing for the next opponent. “You can look at records, see who they played. But you can only, at best, guess. You can talk to a player or coach on another team that you know who played them (to get some kind of scouting report), but it’s all hearsay.”
Regardless if San Mateo’s season ends Saturday or not, this is just the beginning of what the Bearcats hope is a long run of postseason appearances. The bulk of the Bearcats’ roster is filled currently filled with sophomores, which suggests they will only get better over the next couple years.
But the competition is about to take a huge step up as San Mateo was voted to move into the Bay Division for the 2018 season.
“If we had no one coming (next season), we’d still be competitive. Everyone in the Ocean said, 100 percent, move up,” Jepsen said. “[My team wants] to get better. Beating a team 20-2 is no good, in my opinion.”
Whether the Bearcats continue their run through CCS this season, or begin prepping for next year, Jepsen is proud of what her team has accomplished.
“My girls have worked so hard,” Jepsen said. “They’ve improved so much since the beginning of the season.”