The Golden Valley High softball team entered the final week of the regular season with nothing beyond the final two games promised.
Nothing was clinched. No playoffs or a conference championship. Finish with two straight losses and Golden Valley’s season could be over.
“Isn’t that crazy,” Cougars coach Ross Cruickshanks said. “We’re 22-3 and we have nothing.”
That changed on Monday afternoon, as Golden Valley avenged an earlier loss to Atwater with a 2-0 win behind a one-hit shutout by Marissa Bertuccio at Atwater High. The win combined with Merced’s 9-6 loss to Patterson clinched a playoff spot for the Cougars (23-3, 9-2 Central California Conference.
Golden Valley can clinch a share of its first CCC championship since 2005 with a win against Merced on Wednesday.
“It feels great,” said Bertuccio. “It’s something we’ve been talking about all season. We talk about every practice. We know it’s now within reach. We have to keep working hard and dig deep in this last game.”
Bertuccio had to dig deep against the Falcons (18-7 overall, 8-3 CCC). Atwater pounded out 15 hits and six runs against Bertuccio in the Falcons’ 6-1 win over Golden Valley on April 10.
The rematch again matched up the two future Division-I college pitchers in Bertuccio, who has already signed with Sacramento State, and Atwater’s Megan Escobar, who will sign with UC Santa Barbara on Thursday.
The two aces have been competing against each other since they were nine years old.
“I think since 10u, I was nine-ish,” Escobar said.
“We were both on small travel teams,” Bertuccio said.
Both have developed into two of the best softball players in Merced County and they showed why during Monday’s pitching duel.
Escobar gave up just five hits and two runs, while striking seven batters. The right-hander is 11-5 this season with a 1.22 ERA.
Bertuccio was brilliant, giving up just the one hit and walking two. She finished with four strikeouts. Bertuccio improved to 23-3 and lowered her ERA to 0.34 with her 15th shutout of the season. Her 23rd win ties Bertuccio for the state lead in wins and her 263 strikeouts are tied for the third most in the state.
Bertuccio said she made an adjustment from the last time she faced the Falcons’ potent offense.
“I think I just tried to focus on location this time,” she said. “Last time I was trying to move the ball too much. This time I just focused on my spot and let the movement take care of itself.”
The Cougars definitely came out the hungrier team after the loss in the first matchup. The players were up on the dugout from the first pitch and making noise.
“I don’t think we came out as pumped and as enthusiastic as I thought we would,” Escobar said. “Your team has to have it. From the first at-bat and the first pitch, you could hear their dugout. We hard a hard time matching that. It definitely helps, just knowing your teammates are excited to play, that feeling that they have your back. I think we kind of lacked that a little bit today.”
Maddie Martinez doubled and came around to score on a base hit from Vanessa Saltos to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
The Cougars played flawless defense behind Bertuccio. There was sophomore Maddy Stokes making a strong play at second base after a ball deflected off of Bertuccio’s glove and freshman center fielder Naomi Moore throwing out the potential tying run at the plate.
Bertuccio added an insurance run in the sixth inning when she singled in Moore, who had tripled, to extend the GV lead to 2-0.
“This was an excellent team win,” Bertuccio said. “It wasn’t just one person who stepped up. Everyone showed up. Our defense played great.”