By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A lineout double play to seal Santa Rosa Junior College’s first conference win on Thursday, a 20-4 victory over Diablo Valley, was the momentum jolt that the young Bear Cubs’ squad needed as it continues to chase a spot in the state playoffs.
Playing in one of California’s toughest conferences, the Bear Cubs (13-11, 1-5 Big 8 Conference) need more wins to follow a solid early season slate that has stoked SRJC with confidence.
“We know that if we do our best and win games we will bounce back on top. The playoffs are the goal,” said Keeley Ray, the former Sonoma Valley High player who helps power a potent offense.
To succeed, SRJC must work hard on defense and get continued growth from pitchers new to the junior college game.
With a majority of the roster first-year players, new coach Phil Wright seeks discipline and determination from his squad.
“We all just play together well as a team. We’re really supportive of each other,” said Allison Marrone, a second-year outfielder from Cloverdale High.
The bonds have been forged both on and off the field. A team retreat to a Truckee cabin over the winter helped bring the team together, new and returning players. Movie nights and dinners keep teammates unified even when losses can make for tough days.
“It definitely feels like a new program,” said Kayla Lowe, a slugging second-year first baseman from Windsor High.
Leading the Bear Cubs is longtime amateur coachWright, who helped develop the Cal Haze Gold travel team and has coached at the high school level. Wright took over the program when the school year commenced.
Being new on the job hasn’t dimmed his expectations.
“We should be right there in the end fighting for a playoff spot. We’ve got to battle to take that spot,” he said.
“We’ve just got to coach it up and get them to be the best they can,” he said. “Nobody out-works us in practice. They’re really learning the mental side and getting better every day.”
Coming into the season SRJC had two returning players — Lowe and Marrone — and gained a big addition in Ray.
A coaching change at MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) led Ray to transfer to Santa Rosa for her sophomore season. Despite having started for a NAIA national tournament qualifier, Ray hasn’t regretted the move.
“It really was a tough decision,” Ray said. “But, I’m doing good in softball and I get to be home with family. I’ve made new friends here. Things happen for a reason and I’ll find a new school next year.”
Ray and Lowe are among the top hitters in the Big 8 Conference. Joining the hit parade are Samantha Bartee (Maria Carrillo), Oriana Poueu (Rancho Cotate), Mattie Kent (Casa Grande) and Marrone.
“That is our main theme. If we score a lot of runs then most likely we can hold on,” Ray said. “We have to keep hitting. We should be fine.”
To win in such a tough conference demands finding ways to win the close contests, Lowe said.
“Our defense doesn’t really make a whole lot of errors,” she said. “We can’t lose the games we know are going to be close.”
On the mound,SRJC puts the ball in the hands of a pair of freshmen who are growing into their starting roles, Wright said.
Cheyenne Bricker, from Big Valley High, in northeast California, has the most starts. Haylie Chase, out of Eureka High, is the No. 2 starter.
“They throw hard, but they’re just young. They’re learning how to pitch on this level,” Wright said.
An uneven season has tested Santa Rosa’s ability to have a short memory and bounce back. Consider that the Bear Cubs longest winning streak — four games — was followed by a six-game losing streak. That skid included the first handful of conference contests.
Opening Big 8 play with two of the state’s top five teams —Sierra and Delta —was difficult.
“These teams are amazing,”Lowe said. “The new players got their eyes opened and realized you’ve just got to learn to let them go.”
If anything, though, Santa Rosa is resilient.
“We’ve been talking about mentally getting to a place where we can win,”Marrone said. “It helps us to gain confidence and will carry over to the rest of the season.”
Breaking out for a decisive first conference win should help. Santa Rosa put away Diablo Valley with the game called on the 10-run mercy rule.
The hitting stars included Marrone with five runs batted in and continued hot batting by freshmen Bartee – home run, double, 3 RBI – and Poueu – double, triple, RBI.
“The freshmen have been hitting and the way they’ve been playing impressed me,” Ray said.
Younger players have stepped in for a number of injured Bear Cubs. The roster is down to a dozen able to take the field.
Next up for SRJC, weather permitting, is a doubleheader today at Sacramento City College. The Bear Cubs visit American River on Tuesday before returning home for a pair with Cosumnes River in a week.
To make the state playoffs, the Bear Cubs must reel off enough wins to finish at least third in the conference. The Big 8 typically sends three teams to the tournament.
“We’re going to have to buckle down and really start wanting that drive to win,”Lowe said.
Record: 13-11 overall, 1-5 Big 8 Conference
New coach: Phil Wright
Notable Players: Keeley Ray, Sonoma Valley; Kayla Lowe, Windsor; Samantha Bartee, Maria Carrillo; Oriana Poueu, Rancho Cotate; Mattie Kent, Casa Grande; Allison Marrone, Cloverdale; Cheyenne Bricker, Big Valley; Haylie Chase, Eureka High.
Home again: Mar. 31 vs. Cosumnes River, DH, 12 p.m.