TIME TO CELEBRATE: La Habra players mob Amanda Akles (#99) after hitting a home run in
the Highlanders’ 7-2 victory over Sunny Hills Thursday.
(Staff photo by Keith Durflinger)
By Steve Ramirez, SGVN
LA HABRA — La Habra High School didn’t win the Freeway League softball championship Thursday.
But the Highlanders took a major step toward a four-peat.
Maleena Esparza and Amanda Akles each hit two-run home runs in the sixth inning and Vanessa Ciocatto was steady in the circle and La Habra took over first place with a 7-2 victory over Sunny Hills.
The Highlanders, also getting a two-run single from Racquel Manzo in the third, improved to 16-8 overall and 5-1 in the Freeway League.
Sunny Hills, which handed La Habra its only league loss on April 3, slipped to 10-9 and 4-2.
“I’d rather have a one game lead than be behind by one game with two weeks left,” La Habra coach Frank McCarroll said. “This is the third time we played them. We beat them in the Brea Tournament and they beat us, 6-2, at their place, so you can look at the two scores and decide who is the big dog.
“I thought today we pitched well, we were strong, defensively, and we got some timely hits. Maleena showed why she’s been Area Player of the Year (with the home run). But our freshmen — (Manzo) and (Akles) — had some key hits. They’ve been doing it all year long.”
Manzo came up big in the third to give the Highlanders a 2-0 lead. Sammie Klein led off with a single and Esparza received a hit-by-pitch. Shanin Thomas followed with a sacrifice before Manzo singled to center for a two-run advantage.
La Habra, after Sunny Hills cut it to 3-2 with home runs by Riley Nahrwold and Marshaylee Knighten in the fourth and sixth, respectively, put it away in its half of the sixth.
Klein led off the inning with a walk. Esparza then hit Nahrwold’s second pitch for a home run to center to stretch the lead to 5-2.
Thomas followed with a single before Akles homered to left-center field for a 7-2 advantage.
“I just tried to say calm, get a base hit,” Esparza said of her home run. “I was trying to pump up my teammates. All I wanted was a base hit, but a home run works.”
Ciocatto was steady to improve to 16-7. She allowed just four hits and struck out two in five and 2/3 innings.
Her only mistakes came in the home runs to Knighten and Nahrwold.
“The first one was a mistake,” McCarroll said. “The second was legit. As long as they are (solo home runs), you’re OK. ”
Taylor Pierce, who went 1 for 3 with an RBI, took it from there. She relieved Ciocatto after the second home run, then retired the final three batters in the sixth before giving up a single to Shelby Cornett to lead off the seventh.
The sophomore retired the next three batters to earn the save to give the Highlanders the win.
“(Pierce) did good,” McCarroll said. Vanessa is good to through the fifth, then we can go to Taylor in the sixth and seventh.”
La Habra now looks to wrap up the title over the next two weeks, facing Sonora and Buena Park next week before finishing the regular season against Troy and Fullerton, which began the day tied for third.
“We really needed this win, especially against this team.” Esparza said. “This is the team that always wants to beat us. They are the second best in the leauge, so we really needed this win to keep us going.”