Sean Lynch: MC softball ahead of game

April 3, 2009 

Sean Lynch

SEAN LYNCH

A .500 season. Middle of the road. Average.

That's what one Merced College official estimated would be a best-case scenario for the She-Devils softball team this year.

It wasn't a personal shot at first-year coach Suzanne Burrola or even a swipe at the player's talent.

The official was simply predicting based off of the facts at hand.

The truth is, Burrola wasn't exactly set up to be successful.

It takes awhile for coaches to find their legs at the collegiate level. Burrola's predecessor, Steve Cassady -- a winner of more than 600 career games -- finished 10 games under .500 in his first season.

And the She-Devils were only returning four players from the 2007-08 program.

To add insult to injury, Burrola's inaugural recruiting class thinned before the season ever started and MC entered the year with only 11 players on the roster.

Those 11 haven't exactly stayed healthy, either.

While no season-ending injuries have befallen them, the natural bumps and bruises of the softball season have forced Burrola to shuffle her lineup and defense more than a few times.

Yet despite all of this, the She-Devils head into their last five games with a 22-15 record.

MC likely won't defend its Central Valley Conference title, but its resume includes victories over four of the state's Top 20 teams.

The latest a 2-1 victory over No. 1 Siskiyous last Saturday.

MC can make it five when they host No. 4 Fresno City next Tuesday.

While Burrola may never admit it, the team is actually much further along than many expected it to be.

"We've shown we can be a good ball club when we come ready to play," Burrola said. "What I'm looking for is for us to be a little mentally tougher.

"We've never established any kind of consistency.

"We can play great one day and then look like we have no business being out there the next.

"No matter what, we have to come to the ballpark ready to play."

For anyone who has watched this year's softball team, Burrola's frustrations are understandable.

She has a freshman-heavy roster and on occasion, they play that way.

Defensive errors tend to come in bunches and base-running miscues have more than once left fans shaking their heads.

But there are also moments of brilliance.

Down to their last three outs in Porterville, the She-Devils erased a seven-run deficit and pulled out an 8-7 victory.

Against Siskiyous, MC rallied for two runs in the sixth off of Jackie Imhof (20-2), the winningest pitcher in the state.

"We didn't tell the girls where they were ranked or even mention their record," Burrola said of the Siskiyous victory. "We just told them they had to bring their 'A' game.

"We came out and played relaxed and loose and beat the top team in the state."

According to Burrola's players, it may have been a turning point.

"We weren't intimidated," Nicole Blades said. "We pretty much went in with the attitude that we had nothing to lose.

"It was a huge confidence boost."

A few days later, Burrola sat her players down for a lengthy team meeting in which a number of issues were hashed out.

"I think we're a lot closer now because of the meeting," Blades said. "Everybody has a much better understanding of where everyone else is coming from."

The team responded by turning in one of its finest performances of the season in a 1-0 victory over West Hills on Tuesday.

"It was good to see," Burrola said. "Now we need to see if we can maintain that focus.

"We probably have to win almost all our remaining games to make the playoffs.

"As long as we beat the teams we're supposed to, we'll give ourselves a chance."

That's more than most were giving them when the season began.

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.