Estrada: Johansen is Modesto's best-ever prep softball team

SACRAMENTO -- It didn't take long for the fans from Johansen High to start looking ahead to next season, excited by the idea that their Vikings will be a contender for the Sac-Joaquin Section crown.

Moments earlier, the season had ended with a 6-3 loss to Elk Grove in the Division I final. The Vikings had beaten California's No. 2-ranked team 6-5 earlier Friday night on Missy Sandoval's ninth-inning homer, forcing the do-or-die championship game.

Johansen became the first Stanislaus District team in 16 years to play in the section final, the first-ever to do so without wearing Davis' green-and-gold jersey.

Davis has been the region's softball power for more than two decades, and the frequent debate was which of its team was the city's best of all time.

That was settled this week.

The Vikings' stunning playoff run, winning four straight elimination games and beating state No. 3 Pleasant Grove to reach the final, makes them the best ever from Modesto. There's no question about it, either.

As well as Davis' teams played in the early 1990s, it was a different sport in a different era. Pitching was for 99 percent of the game, only a handful of teams in the section had quality programs and few girls played outside of school.

Today, the nation's top high schools pitchers are being hit by girls who have private hitting coaches and lift weights. The top teams feature lineups loaded with travel ball stars, and there are more than a dozen schools that give softball the same respect as football.

"It has improved in all aspects of the game," said Johansen coach Debbie Guenther, who coached Davis' JV team in the early 1990s. "The catchers didn't have the arm strength they have today and pitchers blew it by many hitters. There wasn't the aggressive baserunning. You didn't have the excellent fielding.

"Back then, if you had two good pitchers you were going to have a pitching duel. They weren't going to be hit. That's all changed."

When Johansen beat Pleasant Grove in the losers' bracket final, it beat a team sending its pitcher and catcher to UCLA. When it beat Sheldon on Monday, it beat a team whose top hitter will also play for UCLA.

The decision by Elk Grove schools to build premier softball programs has been the reason for the shift.

This is the fifth consecutive year an Elk Grove school won the title, and the first time in that span that both the finalists weren't from Elk Grove.

Lincoln of Stockton, Davis and Fairfield were the only programs to consistently compete in the 1980s and early '90s. Interlopers would appear, but they would fade after just a year or two.

Johansen's challenge is to build a program capable of coming back here each year, and not just settle for a moment of playoff glory.

There's plenty of reason for optimism: Pitcher Lizzie Perez returns for her junior year and eight of the nine batters in Thursday's lineup are back. No. 2 hurler Missy Sandoval also is returning.

"Our philosophy is that the girls need to think on the field, reacting instead of looking to us," Guenther said. "We won some games because girls on other teams didn't react to a situation."

It means looking back to see if a ball is popped up on a hit-and-run, or recalling that a left-handed batter went opposite field in her last at-bat. It also means going hard from first to third on a single into right, because a bobbled ball means the third-base coach is going to wave you home.

"Some people in the conference were upset because they felt we tried to pour it on," Guenther said. "Our view is everything we did in the regular season prepared us for this night.

"We made mistakes in the regular season, but that was the time to do it. Our confidence was extraordinary for the playoffs, because we were ready for anything we saw."

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