El Diamante’s near perfect and nationally ranked season came to a sudden crash.
No. 8 seeded Clovis erased a 5-1 deficit with six runs over two key innings. The No. 1 Miners never responded and fell to an 8-5 Central Section Division I quarterfinal loss Thursday in Visalia. It marks the second consecutive season El Diamante (28-2-1) finished the regular season with only one loss and failed to reach the Valley championship game.
“[Clovis] just wanted it more,” El Diamante’s senior star Sierra Hyland said. “You could tell. We started off good and then we kind of got a little flat. We should have picked it up more. I think we just got a little too excited.”
The Miners weathered a sudden midseason coaching change when Travis Roebuck resigned as head coach on April 26. Former head coach Brad Pendergast re-took the reins and guided the team to four more West Yosemite League wins, three of which came by just one run and two of which required multiple runs in the final inning.
The stretch extended El Diamante’s WYL win streak and current unbeaten streak to 24, while its current winning streak moved to 19. Hyland recorded her 101st career victory and hit her 27th career home run along the way, coming just shy of two Central Section records. The team continued to soar in the natiomal polls, reaching No. 6 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 and No. 10 in the NFCA / USA TODAY poll.
But the Miners were no longer dominating as they had most of the season, and they finally ran out of extra lives Thursday against a Clovis team they beat twice earlier in the year.
“We just kind of let down a little bit,” Pendergast said. “They have a tendency once they get ahead to let down a little bit. Usually it hasn’t hurt us so bad that we couldn’t come back from it. This time it did… Some days you’re the bug and some days you’re the windshield.”
Critics are sure to point fingers at the coaching change as a leading cause to El Diamante’s demise, but Pendergast and Hyland both said that was not a factor.
“You can’t do that,” Pendergast said. “I’ve never seen a coach strike anybody out. I’ve never seen a coach hit a home run. [The players] have done the same thing and played the same way. I don’t think they’ve changed their way of playing all year round.”
Hyland echoed her new coach’s sentiment that nothing changed once he took over.
“No, it wasn’t any different,” Hyland said. “We didn’t change anything at all.”
The Miners looked like their dominant selves with a 5-1 lead through two innings. Hyland answered Clovis’ first inning run with a leadoff homer and her teammates quickly followed suit with line drive after line drive. Back in the circle, Hyland was well on her way to a 14-strikeout game with five through the first two frames.
But when the Cougars weren’t whiffing, they were making timely, devastating hits.
A pair of infield singles by Cayla Broussard and Paige Peichle set the table for a two-run triple off the wall by Amber Shaw to cut El Diamante’s lead to 5-3 in the third inning.
A string of two singles, an error and a walk then led to a three-run triple by Reichle as Clovis took a 7-5 lead in the fourth.
“We had a game plan of coming in and fighting for contact,” Clovis coach Mike Noel said. “We didn’t always do that, but when we had runners on we had some girls come up big.”
The Cougars scored first after Hyland walked two of the game’s first three batters. Broussard, who finished the game 3-for-3 with a triple, stole home when Miner catcher Katy McJunkin threw to second on a steal by Shaw.
After Hyland’s leadoff jack in the bottom of the frame, McJunkin singled and scored on a base hit by Stevi Johnson. Four El Diamante batters hit the ball hard, but the Miners stranded two runners and settled for a 2-1 lead.
Rylee Pierce nearly belted a grand slam in the second, but what would have been her 15th home run of the season was caught at the wall for a sacrifice fly. Johnson then cleared the bases with a double to put El Diamante up 5-1.
Clovis scored its first run in the fourth when Broussard hit a ground ball to third with the bases loaded. Deidra See tried to get the lead runner at home, but the throw came in a split second late.
At least that’s how the home plate umpire saw it.
“[Clovis] made a couple of infield singles and they were fortunate to have their best hitters up at the time,” Pendergast said. “We didn’t get the play at home and I think that kind of rattled us a little bit. That was an out by a mile.”
El Diamante only produced one hit after the second inning. The top of the Miners’ order led off two frames after Clovis took its 7-5 lead, but only Pierce reach safely each time via walks.
Samantha Blair pitched all seven innings for the Cougars, but she produced very different results from the first two frames to the last five.
“There wasn’t a major adjustment,” Noel said of his Blair’s performance. “She started to feel comfortable with what she was doing out there. She’s young to this type of pressure. She settled in and really did a fine job.
“She’s the type of pitcher that just keeps fighting. She’s tough to hit when she’s throwing her pitches where they need to be. We were able to hang with her and hang with her. She usually gets out of it and that happened today.”
Clovis added a run in the sixth when a two-out triple by Broussard led to a squeeze bunt single by Mackenzie Emmett.
El Diamante looked in prime position to make a run at its fourth Valley championship and sixth trip to the finals. The Miners held regular season wins over Clovis West, Bullard and Stockdale, which were seeded Nos. 2-4 respectively in Division I. They were certainly favored against Clovis after beating the Cougars twice earlier in the year.
The loss however, marks the end of a decorated career for Hyland (24-1), who suffered her first pitching loss of the season. Her 14 strikeouts in her final game as a Miner tied a seven-inning season high set on March 12 at Clovis. She struck out 17 on May 3 against Lemoore in 13 innings. Her career high was 19, also against Clovis on March 20, 2012, matching her 12-inning total set as a freshman against Madera on March 18, 2010.
Hyland last gave up seven runs in a game on Feb. 28 at Clovis North during an 8-7 win in the Miners second game of a season-opening doubleheader. The last time she gave up eight or more runs was against Central (10) as a freshman on March 23, 2010, but only three of those were earned.
“I’m just going to remember the girls and how close we were and what a great season we had,” Hyland said.