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Atwater shuts out Merced

ATWATER -- Joe Leonardo couldn't have been happier on Tuesday afternoon.

The Atwater softball coach watched his team make just about every play in the field.

He watched senior Olivia Sugiura pitch a three-hit shutout and his offense come up with the hits when it needed to in a 3-0 win over Merced.

"We played well," Leonardo said. "We played well last week against Los Banos, but they played better.

"(Merced) made a couple mistakes for us."

Meanwhile, across the diamond, Merced coach Bart McAfee was speechless.

For good reason.

McAfee didn't have much to say after watching his team commit three costly errors and his offense fall flat.

"I don't have any comment to make," McAfee said. "Any comment I make will be bad.

"(Atwater) played good. They made plays."

McAfee wasn't lying.

After one first-inning error, the Atwater defense played flawless behind Sugiura.

The left-hander induced Merced hitters into 12 groundball outs.

"It really helps when you have a good defense behind you," Sugiura said.

"Especially because it gets so stressful when you have runners on first and second with no outs. I know I can count on my defense to help me out."

Merced pitcher Taylor Gross didn't have that luxury.

Atwater had already struck first for a run when Jennifer Fierro tripled in the bottom of the second inning and scored on a wild pitch. Fierro went 2 for 3 with two runs and an RBI.

Then the Merced defense broke down in the fourth inning.

Three errors helped Atwater tack on two more runs to extend the lead to 3-0.

"The early runs helped," Sugiura said. "Our last couple games we've fallen behind early.

"It changes our mood when we score first. We play with more confidence."

Merced didn't mount much of a threat against Sugiura.

Only three runners reached second base.

Sugiura finished with five strikeouts and didn't walk a batter.

"I said it last week, but she's been doing that all year," Leonardo said. "Los Banos was the first team to get two earned runs on her in a while. She put up another zero today.

"That was nice."

Gross picked up two of Merced's three hits and finished 2 for 3 with a double.

The win pulls Atwater (2-2 Central California Conference, 9-6-1) even with Merced (2-2, 10-5) in the standings.

A rough start has both teams clawing for wins to stay in the playoff hunt.

"Right now, we have to win every game to stay in it," Sugiura said.

"If we want a chance, we have to keep going hard."

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at