The562’s high school baseball and softball coverage for the 2022 season is sponsored by LBUSD Board of Education Member Megan Kerr
Thursday was deja vu all over again for Millikan softball.
On Tuesday, the Rams erased an early deficit and scored four late runs to beat La Habra. In the CIF Southern Section Division 2 quarterfinals two days later at South Hills, Millikan erased an early deficit and scored four runs in the seventh inning to come back and beat the Huskies 7-5 in dramatic fashion.
Millikan will visit Corona Centennial on Saturday for its first semifinal appearance since 2005 when the Rams won a CIF championship.
“This feels good and I love it,” Millikan third baseman Ari Ramirez said. “I can’t wait to go back to school tomorrow and tell people we made history.”
The Rams trailed 4-3 in the seventh inning when Erica Estrada, Katie Knarr and Ari Ramirez led off the inning with singles. Ramirez’ single scored Estrada to tie the game, and then after Shorty Wright drew a walk to load the bases, Mikaela Pacheco delivered a 2 RBI double to put Millikan ahead. Wright scored on a ground ball to cap the four-run inning.
“It’s hard to put into words how badly we want to win,” said Pacheco, who had the walk-off hit in the second round against La Habra. “I wanted to hit the ball so badly and win for these girls. I care about them so much.”
Millikan starting pitcher Ava Schaffel didn’t make it out of the first inning because of control issues, but All-Moore League pitcher Victoria Byrum made a triumphant return to the circle. The junior had missed the last two months due to injury, and Thursday was her first appearance since March 17.
“I never doubt (Schaffel) but I always stay ready no matter what,” Byrum said. “This team is very encouraging and helped me so it definitely showed on the field after not playing for months. My team believing in me really helped me in this game.”
Byrum scattered four hits over 6.1 innings while striking out nine and stranding 13 runners on base. She came back out in the bottom of the seventh with her first lead of the day, and after an intentional walk and a single put runners on with no outs, she limited South Hills to one run in the final frame to secure the win.
“When I felt early on that Ava didn’t have her stuff as much I had to keep a short leash on her and that was the strategy to get (Byrum) in,” Lehr said.
With the bases loaded in the seventh, Byrum got Huskies star first baseman Joie Economides to roll over a changeup for the last out of the game.
“It took us a while to get her changeup in the groove but it worked on the last pitch,” Lehr said. “She’s been chomping at the bit for at least three weeks. She has wanted this moment. She was able to channel all of that energy and did a really good job for us today.”
South Hills used a pair of walks, a miss played ball in the outfield and a passed ball to take a 2-0 lead in the first inning and chase Schaffel. When Byrum came out of the bullpen with runners on and two outs, Ramirez came over to pick up her pitcher.
“I told her, ‘You’ve been wanting this. I know you want your name in the article. So, do you’,” Ramirez told Byrum.
Byrum said she’s been able to work on increasing the spin on her curveball, and said that pitch was key to keeping the potent South Hills offense batting defensively.
Millikan cut the lead to 2-1 in the top of the second inning when Pacheco led off the inning by reaching on an illegal pitch from South Hills starter Audrey Gallegos. She moved to second on Camila Lara’s sacrifice bunt, and scored on Robin Garcia’s two-out RBI single to left field.
South Hills got the run right back in the bottom of the third inning thanks to a pair of walks and a seeing eye infield single. The score remained 3-1 South Hills until the top of the fifth inning when Millikan put together a two-out rally.
Knarr doubled with two outs, Ramirez was intentionally walked, and then Wright blasted a 2 RBI triple to deep center field to tie the game 3-3.
South Hills retook the lead 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth on Isabella Venegas’ RBI single through the right side.
That one-run advantage lasted until the seventh with Millikan scoring four runs, and at no time were the Rams panicking in their dugout because they knew they could come back in any game— like they did on Tuesday.
“I don’t like to panic,” Ramirez said. “I like to trust my team and have hope.”
“I don’t think we need to say anything at this point,” Lehr said of motivating her team after another sloppy start. “We all knew we were disappointed in the first inning. But you don’t have to sit here and lecture these girls. They know, and they just keep fighting. No matter what has gone wrong they just let it go and they beat it with the bats.”
Millikan finished with eight hits and five different spots in the lineup scored runs. Pacheco had the biggest hit of the day in the seventh, just like she did in the second round, and she almost wasn’t even part of this Rams team.
“We almost passed on her and put her on JV,” Lehr said of Pacheco. “I tell her all of the time that she was the one who almost slipped through the cracks. She’s just been so clutch for us.”
“I am surprised that I came up as a sophomore and started and am doing these things,” Pacheco said. “I used (being the last girl to make the Varsity squad) as motivation because I wanted to prove that I deserved to be on Varsity and I can do things for these girls.”
This is the first season as head coach for Lehr, and she’s been candid about the fact that her team wasn’t exactly receptive when she took over last year.
“Coming in we were very structured and that rubbed some of the girls the wrong way,” Lehr said. “My philosophy is a little bit different than what they’re used to. When my team hates me in the beginning and now is all excited and excited to play for us, hell yeah that means more. Change is hard. The fact that we were able to do this with a big change, it just goes to show this team is so talented.”
“I think it does (mean more) with new coaches and a new program and system,” Ramirez said of the success. “It means a lot. We just opened our minds up and put our guard down. We had so much love for our last coach and I think we just didn’t want to have love for the new coach. So, I think opening up to them was the key.”