Hartnell softball coach Andy Watt points to assistant coach Alex Medina as the one who envisioned Saturday being a possibility.
When the 2013 squad was still being formed, Watt said he didn’t know whether the team was going to be .500, slightly above .500, or a championship contender.
“Alex said, ‘You guys could be good this year,’ ” Watt recalled. “He was optimistic.”
A school record 31 wins later, the Panthers enter Saturday with a chance to compete in the Northern California Super Regionals. The team faces San Joaquin Delta College in a three-game series to open up the Northern California Regional Tournament.
All three games will take place at Hartnell. Game 1 is Saturday at 2 p.m. Game 2 is Sunday at noon. If needed, Game 3 will start right after Game 2 finishes.
“We’re ecstatic about the season,” Watt said. “We didn’t know the team that we would have. We’re excited about how it turned out.”
After a regular season that included late-inning comebacks, strikeout-filled pitching performances and offensive barrages, the Panthers will try to keep the season against Delta.
Delta got into the tournament with a 23-17 overall record. The squad enters Saturday’s game with a three-game winning streak. A win Saturday, and it would be the Mustangs’ first four-game winning streak since Feb. 21, when it went to the Fresno area and edged out Reedley. Delta had two four-game winning streaks this season.
The Mustangs will try to repeat their stellar 2011 campaign, where they went 44-2 and got all the way to the state championship final.
The teams did not meet this season, but it’s almost as if they played the same non-conference schedule. Hartnell went 14-4 against teams Delta faced during the season. Delta went 18-4 against those opponents. Perhaps the most notable opponent both teams played was San Mateo, the top seed in the tournament and the No. 1 ranked team in the state. Hartnell lost to San Mateo, but Delta got a win.
That alone let the Hartnell members know they are in for a tough contest.
“They’ve beat teams that we’ve lost to,” said Hartnell pitcher Ashley Andrew. “But we should be ready for anything. They have a good pitching staff and some big hitters. We should be ready for anything.”
Andrew has been one of the Hartnell standouts in the circle, going 11-1 with a 1.94 ERA. She has 115 strikeouts in 90 innings pitched, third best in the state. She has nine complete-game victories, good enough for eighth in the state.
She said she credits part of her success to having supportive teammates.
“This is one of my favorite seasons and my favorite teams,” Andrew said. Even when one of us is having a bad day, we’re there to pick each other up or even give them some space. And to win with them having your back is the best part.”
Catcher Alyssa Seva’aetasi also credited the closeness of the team to the success on the field.
Seva’aetasi has been one of the team’s biggest offensive forces this season, batting .459 while hitting a team-best nine home runs.
“We all get along so much,” she said. “If we’re a good-winning team and we didn’t get along, it wouldn’t be as fun. Since we win and do get along, it is much more fun.”
Hartnell will try to keep the home momentum going. The Panthers are 10-0 at home this season, outscoring their opponents 76-23. The last visiting team to score more than one run in a Hartnell home game was Mission of San Jose on March 12. Hartnell prevailed 12-3.
The players said they’ve been working on defense for the past few days. Although the team has had some big slugging moments, posting a team-best .368 batting average with a school record 34 home runs, they have a .935 fielding average, which was only fourth best in the Coast Conference South Division.
“Our hitting is on top right now, but we need to improve on our defense, and we’ve done a lot of defensive drills,” Seva’aetasi said.
As far as preparing for Delta, Watt said he’s not going to drastically change what he and the rest of the team have been doing to get to this point. He said he took a cue from athletic director Danny Teresa about staying with what works.
“We’re not deviating that much,” Watt said. “We’re preparing like it’s another day.”