After a Pair of Nailbiters, AJHS Runs Into Powerful Cactus Club in the Third Round
By Daniel Dullum
PHOENIX – Glendale Cactus resided at the top of the 4A softball power poll for most of the season. The No. 3-seed Cobras demonstrated why on May 3 with a 14-3 six-inning defeat of No. 2 Apache Junction in the state tournament Pool B semifinals at Rose Mofford Softball Complex.
“Cactus is just a different class,” AJ Coach Ed Matlosz said. “We didn’t have our A game and dropped too many balls, made some errors early and fell behind. You can’t do that against a team that swings the bat like them.”
While AJHS committed four errors, the Cobras (29-4) clubbed Lady Prospectors pitching for 16 hits – 13 after three innings – including four home runs. It was the seventh consecutive win for Cactus, and the 15th time this season the Cobras scored 10 or more runs, and their second win via the 10-run rule in the tournament.
“All year long, we’ve said that if we play defense and do the little things in close games, like the bunts and good baserunning, this team can hit,” Cobras Coach Bartt Underwood said. “They can all hit 1-through-9, they’re not all home run hitters, but I’ve got four or five girls with some pop, some girls who can slap and bunt and run.
“It’s a complete team and it really comes down to them executing the little things, and having smart at-bats with runners in scoring position.”
The Lady Prospectors (25-7) will face Bullhead City Mohave in an elimination game at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Mofford Complex. Mohave eliminated Casa Grande Union 8-7 in a loser-out contest on May 3 with a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh.
The winner between AJHS and Mohave meets Cactus on Thursday, May 10, and must beat the Cobras twice to reach the championship game on Tuesday, May 15.
Cactus junior shortstop Alynah Torres belted her 13th and 14th home runs of the season and drove in three runs, Cobras leadoff hitter Kaytlin Leyvas homered and doubled, and Carson Gambs – the Cactus No. 8 hitter – was 4-for-4 with a double, triple and two runs batted in.
“Alynah has power, average, and you can’t play her in once place. If you put a shift on her, she hits with power to all fields,” Underwood said of Torres, a verbal commit to Arizona State who also leads the Cobras in doubles and home runs. “She’s been pitched around a lot this year and still has a high average. I told her that sometimes in the playoffs, they’ll have to throw to you, so you have to be more selective on the pitches you have to chase.
On Leyvas, a sophomore second baseman, Underwood said, “She has more power than you realize, and it’s all in her wrists. She snaps those wrists and the ball just jumps. She’s only going to get stronger!”
The Cobras took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on a bases-loaded RBI walk issued to pitcher McKenna Feringa. Cactus blew the game open with a four-run rally in the third, highlighted by an RBI double by Emile Guerra, a run-scoring triple by Gambs, a sacrifice fly by Kaiulani Nowell, and Leyvas’s third home run of the season that gave the Cobras a 7-0 lead.
“I don’t know what to attribute the errors to, maybe being on the big stage for the first time,” Matlosz said. “But that’s a good-hitting team and they get in your head a little bit. Unfortunately, we didn’t give Gilgert the support she needed.”
Feringa, a freshman, improved to 13-1. Gilgert, who threw over 200 pitches against Casa Grande Union in Tuesday’s 13-inning win, struggled against Cactus and gave way to Elexis Toro with one out in the fourth.
“I’ve never seen this team before and what they can do,” Gilgert said. “(Cactus) is an aggressive team. I’ve faced aggressive teams before and they’re really hard to pitch to; you try to keep the ball off the plate and they won’t swing. But you put the ball just a tiny little bit on the plate, they’ll swing at anything.”
“I know (Gilgert) throws a lot of innings when she plays club, but when you throw 13 innings … She said, ‘Don’t baby me,’” Matlosz said. “We didn’t, but we certainly don’t want to hurt a girl out there, especially if we’re not giving her the backup she needed. So we got Lexi a chance to see what she could do out there.
“We’ll come back with Mikayla on Tuesday. Hopefully, she’ll be fresh and the defense will support her.”
Apache Junction broke through on Gilgert’s solo home run – her fifth of the season – in the bottom of the fourth, and scored two runs in the fifth when Megan Clark and Tristen Greer both reached on infield singles and scored on Toro’s infield single.
“I liked the way we finished,” Matlosz said. “We didn’t give up, which is good. We went to our bench and those girls provided the spark. They deserved a shot.”
The Lady Prospectors’ focus now shifts to their game against Mohave. Gilgert said the four-day break will help.
“I’m still a little sore from the Casa Grande game,” Gilgert said. “I’ll be ready.”
Matlosz said, “Cactus was the better team today. We have to rebound for the Tuesday game and get another shot at them.”
Cori Haro’s two-out sin gle in the bottom of the 13th inning drove in Elexis Toro from second with the game-winning run for Apache Junction on May 1, as the Lady Prospectors outlasted Casa Grande Union 3-2 in the second round of the AIA 4A softball playoffs.
“I’m proud of these girls,” AJ Coach Ed Matlosz said. “In all my years of coaching, this might have been the most exciting, nail-biter, I’ve ever had.”
Matlosz thought the game was a softball version of the Ali-Frazier boxing matches of the 1970s. “It was the thriller in AJ today between two very good programs that could have gone either way. … In the end, our girls found a way to do it.”
After Mackenzie Dillon and Sarah Nieman each grounded out to second to start the AJHS 13th, Toro slapped a single to center and advanced to second on a wild pitch.
Haro followed with a base hit, and Toro was ruled safe on catcher’s interference when the Cougars’ Clara Cruz landed on Toro short of the plate while dropping the relay throw, illegally blocking the base path.
“Right before Cori was hitting, Coach (Matlosz) said was going to send me no matter what,” Toro said. “When I was going home, I saw (Cruz) and I thought the best option was if I slid into her, because if I go around her, I’m out. So I slid into her, and it was obstruction.
“I took a hit to my jaw, but I’m OK.”
“Lexi is a tough leadoff,” Matlosz said. “Cori hit the ball hard up the middle where you needed it. You might not get that chance again, so Lexi was going to go, and you’ll have to throw us out.”
The winning run came when daylight was beginning to disappear quickly due to the overcast, late afternoon sky. Had the game remained scoreless, there was a possibility of suspending the game to be completed on Wednesday.
“The umpire said he was going to suspend the game when the sun started going down,” Matlosz said. “I didn’t want to face that (CGU) lineup another inning! I don’t want to come back tomorrow!”
“We thought we might have to postpone because it was getting so dark,” Toro said. “In club, we played in a big tournament and had three games go extra innings. You have to have the mentality that it’s going to keep going and you can’t show that you’re tired or else you’ll feel like it.”
Both starting pitchers went the distance. AJ’s Mikayla Gilgert (16-3) worked out of three bases-loaded jams and left Cougar runners stranded at third in the 12th and 13th innings. She struck out 15, walked five and hit one batter. Jessica Mercado (11-4) struck out six and walked one while surrendering one earned run on nine hits.
“I’ve never pitched that many innings before,” Gilgert said. “At the start of the game, I use the energy I have, and when I need that extra energy, you hear me grunting to try and get that last energy out for each pitch. You still have to have the drive to keep going on.”
When working out of trouble, Gilgert said, “I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to let them hit that ball.’ I know if they hit it, it has to be a pop fly, because I trust my infielders and outfielders to catch the ball.”
Matlosz said, “I asked Mouse how she was feeling, and she said ‘I feel good Coach.’
“I know that she’ll try to beat me up if I try to take her out! Mouse really came on strong.”
The Lady Prospectors jumped to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second. Daisy Ruelas-Estrada hit a one-out double and scored on Tristan Greer’s RBI single. Greer stole second and scored on a wild pitch by Mercado.
Casa Grande Union tied the game in the top of the fifth on a two-run single by Amaya Dasti. Jalissa Marquez led off the inning with a walk, followed by Kirstalynne Wright’s infield single. Marquez and Wright were sacrificed to third and second, respectively, by Clara Cruz. Dasti drove in Marquez and Wright, but was caught stealing during Mercado’s at-bat to end the inning.
The Cougars loaded the bases in the ninth with two out, but Gilgert struck out Cruz to end the threat. In the 10th, CGU loaded the bases again with two out on consecutive singles by Mercado, Aleesia Sainz and Adrie Vidal, but Gilgert again came up with clutch strikeout, fanning Haley Marshall.
In the CGU 12th, Gilgert left two runners stranded, and did the same in the 13th. With two out, Cruz doubled (replaced by pinch-runner Jenna Gonzalez), and Alexa Key reached on an infield single, sending Gonzalez to third. Dasti popped up to Gilgert to end the Cougars’ last threat.
Photo above: CELEBRATION TIME! Left: AJHS players Mikayla Gilgert (23) and Cori Haro embrace after Haro drove in the winning run in the Lady Prospectors’ 13-inning 4A playoff win over Casa Grande Union. Right: Gilgert is greeted by her teammates after hitting a home run against Glendale Cactus in a playoff game in Phoenix. (Photos by Daniel Dullum)