Softball: Drange, Cox lead La Canada back to Irvine.

By Erik Boal, Staff Writer

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE – Kelsey Drange wasn’t going to take a walk. Catherine Horner wasn’t going to let Nipomo run. And Lauren Cox wasn’t going accept anything less than a return to the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 softball final.

Drange’s full-count single inside the left-field line scored Katy Lee in the sixth for La Canada’s lone run, Horner threw out four baserunners and Cox overcame seven walks and a hit batter by striking out 13, lifting the host Spartans to a 1-0 semifinal victory Tuesday.

La Canada (25-4-1), the top seed, will face No. 2 Beaumont (25-4) – a 7-1 winner over Barstow – in a rematch of last year’s final Friday or Saturday at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.

“I’m happy we held up our end of the bargain,” La Canada coach KC Mathews said. “But more than anything, I’m happy for these girls. I’m happy to see their hard work fulfilled. But the goal was not just to get there, the goal is to finish it off.”

The Spartans prevailed 1-0 in last year’s championship to capture their first division title since 1995. With Nipomo runners on first and second in the seventh, Cox (23-3) struck out the final two batters to extend La Canada’s postseason winning streak to nine in a row.

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“The last time I was in a situation like that here in the seventh inning was (March 23) against San Marino and I gave up a two-run homer (in a 3-2 loss),” Cox said. “Win or lose, you learn from every game, and as unfortunate as that was, I think it prepared me better for this situation. I was like `This is it, this is the time, this is ours.’ We weren’t going to let them take it from us.”

Cox surrendered a single to Ashley Ruiz in the first and a double to Destiny Fryckman in the second, but Nipomo (19-10) – making its first semifinal appearance – never advanced a runner to third.

Although an unpredictable strike zone resulted in Cox – who had allowed only 37 walks in 177 1/3 innings before Tuesday – walking Courtney Cuzick three times, Horner cut down the Bucknell commit twice trying to steal, along with Ruiz and Fryckman to erase potential Nipomo threats.

“It was really tedious because one spot was a ball, then the next spot was a strike, but (Catherine and I) have such faith in one another because she’s been catching me for so long,” Cox said. “We just stuck with the pitches we throw. Even though it was frustrating, we weren’t going to do anything drastic. It was guess and check the whole time, but we pulled through. She was just amazing.”

After Horner erased Cuzick (18-8) trying to steal second in the sixth, La Canada fed off the momentum to string together three straight hits in its next at-bat after managing only a Jessica Ogden single up to that point.

Lee hit a bloop double just over third and Annie Monroe followed with an infield single. Drange nearly walked for a second time, but delivered a clutch single that landed just inside the left-field line, producing her third postseason RBI.

“It was just a matter of time,” Drange said. “I just wanted (Katy) to score. Lauren deserves it. She’s worked hard all season and she deserved to win.”

With Ogden batting, Monroe tried to add an insurance run by scoring from third on a wild pitch, but was tagged out to end the inning.

Although Cox walked two batters in the seventh, she also struck out the side to increase her section-leading total to 311, ahead of Cuzick’s 305.

“She didn’t get the strikes she’s used to getting, but she battled through it all day,” Mathews said. “Even with two runners on in the seventh, I have all the faith in the world in her out there. I wouldn’t trade Lauren for anyone.”

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