With three San Diego Section division titles in as many years, the standard has obviously been set within the Mater Dei Catholic softball program.
“We made it to the semifinals in 2009 and came one win away from making it to the finals,” MDC coach Mike Centrullo said. “With the young team we had, we felt it was going to be a progression for the future, and that’s how it has turned out.”
The Crusaders, seeded second in this year’s 12-team Division IV field, defeated the top-seeded Madison Warhawks, 7-3, last Saturday at UC San Diego to raise the team’s third consecutive CIF championship banner.
This year’s title follows up championship game victories against Christian in 2010 and Madison in 2011. The division banner is the fourth overall for the school, including the 1987 banner captured as Marian Catholic.
While the outcome remained the same — a CIF championship — the road to this year’s title was somewhat different than the previous two, according to Centrullo.
“We were clearly the underdog in the last two years,” the MDC coach said. “Both teams we faced (in 2010 and 2011) were clearly dominant. This year, even though we were the No. 2 seed, I didn’t see us as the underdog. Madison had some injuries late in the season and we were stronger than we were in the past. It was a different dynamic this year.”
The Crusaders (22-8) definitely flexed their collective muscle in the final two games against the Warhawks (27-7). Mater Dei clubbed Madison, 12-3, in the preceding semifinals to advance to this year’s division title game.
The Warhawks then earned a rematch by defeating sixth-seeded Francis Parker, 2-1, in the challenger bracket final on May 24. But the Crusaders were ready again with a broom to sweep Madison aside.
A five-run uprising in the bottom of the second inning did the Warhawks in on Saturday.
Mater Dei pushed across a single run in the bottom of the first inning and tacked on another to start the second inning before Maritza Lopez-Portillo stepped to the plate to deliver the dynamic moment of the game — a grand slam home run to stake the Crusaders to what would prove to be an insurmountable 6-0 lead.
Mater Dei upped its lead to 7-0 with another run in the fourth inning; Madison closed out scoring with three runs in the top of the fifth inning.
The Crusaders out-hit the Warhawks 12-6. Each team committed one error.
Lopez-Portillo finished the game two-for-four with five RBI. Besides the home run, she also stroked a double.
Alexis Morales and Skania Lemus each scored twice while Avery Finch and Amanda Hernandez also crossed the plate.
Lemus finished the game three-for-four while Morales went two-for-four.
Morales, a freshman, pitched six-and-one-third innings, scattering six hits to pick up the win; Lopez-Portillo closed out the final two-thirds of an inning to earn the save.
Lopez-Portillo had been the mainstay in the pitching circle for the Crusaders but an early season injury changed the team’s dynamic. With Lopez-Portillo rehabilitating, Morales took on more pitching duties.
Centrullo said the change to a pitching-by-committee philosophy seemed to work out well for the team. Morales finished the season 15-7 while Lopez-Portillo finished 7-1 with two saves.
Centrullo said the freshman hurler “exceeded expectations.”
“I had expectations for her, certainly for the future, but we didn’t know how’d she perform as a freshman,” the MDC coach said. “She far exceeded our expectations. She was there when we needed her. The finals venue we played at (UC San Diego) with the large field and tall buildings all around can be pretty intimidating but she was solid, she came through.”
Centrullo underscored team philosophy as the driving force behind his squad’s success this year.
“We had a better balance because of it,” the Crusaders coach said. “The juniors, seniors and sophomore all stepped up and the freshmen brought in something we were missing. It was nine on the field, plus more depth on the bench.”
The home run was the 11th for Lopez-Portillo this season to go with 12 doubles and a team-leading 57 RBI.
“We had more power-hitting this year than in the past and I attribute that to work in the weight room,” Centrullo said. “Our hitting was stronger this year.”
MDC slammed two homers in the semifinal victory against Madison — one each by Lemus and Taylor Cruse — while also rocking the Warhawks for four doubles.
Lemus led the victors with three RBI while Morales and Lopez-Portillo, who combined for the win in the pitching circle, each collected two RBI.
The third time proved charmed, indeed.
SAN DIEGO SECTION PARADE OF CHAMPIONS
(1) Torrey Pines 1, (4) Carlsbad 0 (10 innings)
(1) Bonita Vista 4, (2) Rancho Bernardo 2
(2) El Capitan 4, (1) Santana 1
(2) Mater Dei Catholic 7, (1) Madison 3
(3) Horizon Christian 10, (1) Christian 0