The Long Beach State softball team is one win away from an improbable Big West Conference championship.
The LBSU battery of pitcher Kellie White and catcher Justine Briones led the Beach to a pair of wins over Cal State Fullerton on Friday that force a winner-take-all game on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. back at the LBSU Softball Complex.
CSUF (38-14, 21-2) came into the weekend without a conference loss, which means the Beach (29-9, 21-2) needs a series sweep to win its ninth Big West title. The Titans are trying to win their third consecutive conference crown. However, you wouldn’t have known it by how confident LBSU played on Friday.
“We have a lot to lose but they have more,” LBSU junior Alyssa Gonzalez said.
White tossed two complete games while only giving up a total of seven hits. Fullerton didn’t have a hit in the second game until the fifth inning.
“My focus today was just to win,” White said. “I knew every out mattered, I refused to lose today and I wanted to do this for my team.”
White struck out 14 batters while making 225 pitches over the 14 innings. The senior wasn’t supposed to pitch the second game, but LBSU coach Kim Sowder had to go back to her ace because of an injury to the scheduled game two starter.
“She works hard everyday,” Sowder said of White. “She’s been learning from each of her outings. It took her awhile to get going with no offseason. She’s always wanted (this moment) and she was feeling it today.”
Briones was near perfect behind the plate in both games, and the junior catcher delivered the RBI hits to give LBSU the lead in both games. Her sixth-inning 2-run triple in the first game put the Beach ahead for good, and she sparked a 5-run fifth inning in the second game with a bases cleaning triple. Briones had struggled through injury to start the season, but has been a reliable backstop since.
“She’s been through a lot but she’s probably the hardest worker on our team in the weight room and everything,” Sowder said. “I’m really proud of the way they played today and battled back.”
Game One: LBSU 3, CSUF 2
White and Fullerton starter Sophie Frost absolutely dominated the first three innings of the first game as they combined to face only one batter over the minimum. That’s even more impressive considering the top 10 Big West players ranked in slugging percentage were all in the game.
“They didn’t chase my low stuff and they were swinging at everything high so as long as I spun the ball up I knew they were going to swing at it,” White said. “I knew my defense had my back the entire time.”
White and Frost got by with some help from their defense early. Briones threw out a runner in the top of the first inning, and CSUF left fielder Irie Siofele made a diving catch in foul territory in the bottom of the first. LBSU shortstop Cam Cecil also made a pair of nice plays up the middle on line drives in the second and sixth innings.
“She makes me look good even when I’m not looking good,” White said of Briones. “She gets me so many calls I should not be getting. She’s an absolute stud.”
Fullerton got on the board in the fourth inning when freshman Hannah Becerra hit a 2-run home run over the center field fence. It was only the second hit of the game for the Titans, but White and Briones said they still adjusted after the long fly ball.
LBSU responded by putting the possible tying run on base in the bottom of the fourth thanks to singles from Gonzalez and Breezy Wise. However, Frost got out of the jam with a long fly out to right field off the bat of Emily Salazar.
Relying more on her changeup and working the outside corners, White also stranded a pair of runners in the top of the sixth to keep it 2-0. That loomed large in the bottom of the frame.
Gonzalez led off LBSU’s side of the sixth with nine pitch at-bat that ended in a ground out, but it was clear the battle took something out of Frost.
“Honestly I went up there thinking, ‘Make her work,’” Gonzalez said. “We noticed earlier that she was kind of grimacing during the game for whatever reason and we just wanted to make her work. We wanted to make her beat us.”
Third baseman Suzy Brookshire came up next and bounced a triple off the top of the right field fence. Wise followed that up with a clean single into right field on an 0-1 offspeed pitch.
After a fly out, the Beach put together a 2-out rally to take the lead. Cecil singled and then Briones brought both runners home with a triple off the glove of diving right fielder Kelsie Whitmore.
“In my first at-bats I was seeing strikes and taking a lot,” Briones said. “In that third at bat I changed my approach and swung at strikes.”
White gave up a single in the seventh but used a pair of ground outs to end the game.
“I just think we’ve put in a lot of hard work this whole season and we just knew we had to go all out,” Briones said.
Game Two: LBSU 8, CSUF 1
It didn’t look good for the Beach in the early innings of the second game. A play at the plate and bad call on a missed tag kept LBSU off the scoreboard while CSUF took a 1-0 without a hit. The Titans got on the board with a walk, a stolen base, a wild pitch and an RBI groundout in the second inning.
“I just told myself to stay in the moment,” White said of maintaining her composure. “This game can change in a second. On this team we’re all going to ride together and we’re not going to lose. We’re all staying in it with one mission.”
Sowder also said she was not worried in the fourth inning when LBSU had already stranded seven runners, while CSUF protected a 1-0 lead without a hit.
“I felt like we were having really good at bats,” Sowder said. “Credit (Fullerton) they made some nice catches to keep us off the board, but we just kept plugging along.”
A pair of singles from Naomi Hernandez and Rylie Seip chased CSUF game two starter Dani Martinez in the fifth, and then LBSU broke the game open off Frost who came back out of the bullpen.
Gonzalez used the lessons she learned in her long at-bat in the first game to greet Frost with a clean single that loaded the bases with no outs. Brookshire and Wise brought in runs with RBI singles, and then after a fielders choice, Briones bounced her 3-run double off the left field fence.
Sowder said she wasn’t surprised by the offensive explosion from the Beach.
“We’ve learned from situations when we’ve played a little bit nervous earlier in the year,” Sowder said. “You can’t let fear stand in the way. You have to want it more than you fear it. They’ve learned that. They’re not afraid to go up and swing at the first pitch in big situations. They trust each other that somebody is going to get it done.”
White said she’s ready to take the ball again on Saturday if her team needs that.
“We are (the best team in the conference) and we have everything to back it up,” White said. “We have two losses (in Big West) but we didn’t lose to those other teams. We lost to ourselves. As long as we don’t let this game get bigger than ourselves we can beat any team in the nation. I truly believe that. Tomorrow we’re just after one more win. I’m going to take it pitch by pitch, we’re going to take it inning by inning and this team is going to do amazing things.”
“I think they’re going to come out here and leave it all on the field and feel good about it regardless,” Sowder said of her squad. “They’re definitely on a mission.”
Saturday will be a doubleheader but the second game will be a non-conference contest. That’s been the case for all Big West series this year. The conference added the fourth game every weekend to get more games in for their schools.