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Merced softball wins two playoff games to end drought

Chelsea Evans and Ruby Quiralte have felt the sting of swift playoff eliminations before.

Both four-year starters have made the long two-hour drive to Sacramento with the Merced High School softball team the past three years only to pack up and head home one game later.

Finally, Evans, Quiralte and their teammates are sticking around, as Merced won back-to-back games Saturday with a 3-0 victory against Tracy after a 4-3 victory against Woodcreek in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs at the Sacramento Softball Complex.

The Bears (24-2-1) snapped a string of six playoff losses and advanced out of the first round for the first time since 2006.

Leading the way, Evans pitched a three-hit shutout against Tracy, and Quiralte went 5 for 7 at the plate – including the game-winning hit in the bottom of the seventh against Woodcreek and a solo homer in the sixth against Tracy.

“My freshman year we lost on the same field we played on (Saturday) morning,” Evans said. “We had to step it up. It feels great that we’re coming back. It feels amazing.”

The Bears face Rocklin at 5 p.m. today in a winners’ bracket game. The victor advances to the winners’ bracket final Tuesday; the loser will play an elimination game at 7 tonight.

On Saturday, Merced won by changing its style.

The Bears steamrolled their way to a 15-0 run in March and April to capture their fourth consecutive Central California Conference championship. Against CCC teams in that span, Merced outscored its opponents 141-17.

Merced coach Bart McAfee rarely had to give a bunt sign. He gave it early and often Saturday.

“We played a lot of good small ball (Saturday),” McAfee said. “We really haven’t bunted all year because we didn’t have to. We bunted five or six times in our first game (Saturday), and it worked. It helped us.

“This is the section playoffs. This is different than the regular season.”

Katelynn Gietler sacrificed twice to move leadoff hitter Rheanne Lewis into scoring position against Woodcreek. It paid off both times when Madilyn Nickles and Evans each drove in Lewis to help the Bears build a 3-1 lead against the Timberwolves after three innings.

“A lot of these Sacramento-area teams have a lot of travel ball players,” Evans said. “On our team, we have three or four who played travel ball and that’s not the big ones. So we’re playing against all these players who play small ball well. We have to be able to do it, too.”

The Bears didn’t beat Woodcreek easily after the Timberwolves scored two runs in the top of the seventh to tie it 3-3.

Lewis then led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk. After a Gietler single, Evans bunted both runners into scoring position.

Woodcreek coach Jeff Fischer then decided to intentionally walk Nickles to load the bases and set up a force at home with one out.

The move had Quiralte seeing red.

“I was a little upset,” she said. “That’s like saying I can’t hit. That motivated me even more.”

Quiralte smoked a walk-off single to center to drive in Lewis.

“I knew it was a base hit right when I hit it,” she said.

Against Tracy (23-5), Evans turned in one of the best performances of her career as she dominated a Bulldogs lineup that averaged nearly eight runs a game.

Tracy only had one runner reach third base in the game, and only once did the Bulldogs have a leadoff hitter reach base.

“Chelsea pitched a great game,” McAfee said. “About halfway through, she tweaked her groin. Hopefully, she’ll be good for Monday. I think she’ll be fine. She hasn’t pitched that much the last couple weeks. That’s a good-hitting team, and she shut them out.”

The Bears’ offense struggled early against Tracy starter Taylor Misfeldt. Merced took a 1-0 lead in the second when a fly ball off the bat of Shelbee Ward was dropped in the outfield to allow Megan Kravec to score.

Quiralte led off the sixth with a solo homer. Ward later brought in Kravec with a sacrifice to go up 3-0.

“We can’t be satisfied,” McAfee said. “After the first win it was like, ‘OK, we won one game.’ This isn’t just some weekend tournament. This is the section playoffs. This is for everything.”