There were a few tears but mostly smiles as the Merced High School softball team posed for one final team picture shortly after their season ended at the Sacramento Softball Complex on Monday night.
The fourth-seeded Bears had plenty to be proud of after bowing out of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs with a 7-0 loss to No. 5 Tracy.
For the third straight season, Merced made a deep playoff run. This run seemed improbable with three freshmen in the starting lineup and Bears star Madilyn Nickles wincing in pain after just about every pitch she threw in the postseason.
Still, Merced (22-7) was one of the final four teams standing in the 16-team bracket.
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“We did good,” coach Bart McAfee said. “We played good. We just ran out of gas.”
Monday started with the Bears unsure if Nickles could pitch through the pain in her right side. She dislocated a rib a few weeks ago and likely has been dealing with torn cartilage.
Merced had three pitchers warm up before its game against No. 3 Vacaville. Nickles took the ball and went toe-to-toe with Vacaville’s Katie Kibby in a battle of two of the top pitchers in the section who happen to play travel ball together.
Both pitchers took shutouts into the eighth inning before the Bears broke through for three runs off the Bulldogs’ ace.
The Bears were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position before Rheanne Lewis hit a soft, sinking liner over shortstop that dropped for a double to drive in Phoebe Arista with the first run. Nickles also scored when the throw from left fielder Bailee Aguigui skipped past third baseman Destiny Quiles to give Merced a 2-0 lead.
“That was huge,” Lewis said. “I had some opportunities to help us score earlier, but I didn’t step up. I was glad I was finally able to help my team with a hit. That was amazing, and I haven’t been that happy in a softball game in a long time.”
Lewis wasn’t done with her heroics. Monique Collins drove in Lewis with a squeeze bunt to stretch the Bears’ lead to 3-0. The run proved to be big.
Nickles labored in the eighth as Vacaville (18-7-1) started the inning with a double by Brooke Mitchell and a bunt single by Alyse Rojas. Nickles then walked Aguigui to load the bases with no outs.
A wild pitch allowed Mitchell to score Vacaville’s first run, and Nickles struck out Madison Rojas for the first out on a pitch in the dirt. Merced catcher Alazaya Landeros threw out Madison Rojas at first, but Alyse Rojas scored from third on the play with Aguigui advancing to third.
Quiles then hit a sharp grounder to Lewis at second, and she fired home to Landeros, who tagged out Aguigui, preserving the 3-2 lead.
“Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a ball hit to me and I’ve successfully thrown out a runner at the plate, so I was a little nervous,” Lewis said. “I was excited when it happened.”
Nickles struck out the final batter to close the win. She struck out 12 to finish the season with a career-high 308, which ranks third in the state and leads the section this season.
Nickles was unable to pitch against Tracy, as her injury relegated her to playing first base. Freshman Abby Flores started and pitched well, holding Tracy to two runs through four innings.
The Bears’ bats never came alive against Tracy left-hander Mikayla Coelho. Merced finished with four hits, and the Bulldogs broke the game open with two runs in the fifth.
“Abby pitched well. We just didn’t make a couple plays behind her,” McAfee said. “How can we be disappointed? We played well. If you look at the tournament, we beat Tracy 4-0 earlier and we gave Sheldon the best game so far. We’re right there with everybody.
“Of course you want to win, but we can’t be disappointed.”