TRACY -- Kerstin Smith is a cornerstone in Buhach Colony's bid to rebuild its softball program, which took a heavy hit from graduation last year.
A half-dozen key players departed, and Buhach's shortstop walked off early this season -- leaving a lot of new faces to fill crucial roles.
Smith tops that list, since the freshman was put behind the plate to catch Alex Molina -- the program's poster girl during a year of renovation.
Reviews have been positive for Smith and her mates, and they got even better Friday when the Thunder upset West of Tracy 2-1 to capture the Gold Bracket title at the 64-team NorCal Classic.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"It's been exciting, but we feel a lot of pressure because Buhach has a great softball tradition," said Smith, who is playing travel ball with the Runnin' Rebels 16-and-under team this summer. "You can see we're improving. A week like this can really help us."
The Thunder went 4-0, with Molina pitching every inning and winning three 1-run games. Molina usually relies on strikeouts, but she could get only three against West.
"The first time through the lineup, we tracked pitches so we'd know what they swung at and what they let go," said Smith, who then reversed the order of pitches in subsequent at-bats. "A team like West, you have to mix it up or they'll clobber you."
Buhach scored twice in the first and West cut the lead in half in the fourth, and it was tense throughout as West threatened in every inning.
West's final challenge was in the seventh with two and a runner on second. Facing the cleanup hitter, Molina stuck with her drops and fastballs.
"You want the batter to hit your best pitch rather than giving her something good," said Smith, who maneuvered behind the plate to give Molina a solid target.
The strategy worked, as the cleanup hitter grounded out to second to end the game.
It was the fifth win in a row for Buhach (9-5-1), and its seventh in the last eight games. Buhach beat Ceres 4-3 in a morning semifinal, as junior Yesenia Ruiz hit an inside-the-park homer and Molina escaped a jam to get the win.
Ceres' Jode Johnson singled in the seventh and got to third on two stolen bases, but Molina used a strikeout, pop fly and a groundout to end it.
"People expect a lot of you when you play for Buhach, because it's one of the best softball programs," said Smith. "I think we're on our way to being better."