To a player, the Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders were playing for an angel — rather than praying to one — in last Saturday’s San Diego Section Division IV softball championship game against the top-seeded Christian Patriots at UC San Diego. The angel, of course, being the late Dr. Estelle Kassebaum, former president at Marian Catholic High School from whom the new east side Chula Vista school received its genesis.
Kassebaum, who took over at Marian in 1995, laid the groundwork for the transition of the Imperial Beach-area school to its new campus at Mater Dei that eventually took place in 2007. She died in 2006 before the new campus opened.
And to a player, the Crusaders delivered, as senior Wendy Tamayo sent a “Hail Mary” shot over the left field fence in the top of the seventh inning to spur third-seeded Mater Dei Catholic (21-11) to a dramatic come-from-behind 6-5 title game victory over the Patriots (24-9).
“(Years ago) the softball team made a pledge to win CIF for her,” said Tamayo, who was a member of the last class to attend Marian. “She wasn’t here to see this.”
The Crusaders maneuvered their way to the championship with a 5-1 record in six playoff contests. MDC won its first three games to draw Christian in the winners bracket final on May 27, losing, 5-4, on a two-out, two-run home run by Ricki Gentry in the seventh inning to cap a three-run Patriot rally. The Crusaders then eliminated Palo Verde, 10-5, in the playback final that same evening at the Poway Sportsplex to draw a rematch against the Patriots in the division championship game.
Christian led early, 3-0, before MDC tied the game at three-all in the third inning and then went ahead by two runs, 5-3, in the fourth inning. But the Patriots retaliated with two runs of their own in the next frame to once again place the teams in a standoff on the scoreboard.
Tamayo took care of business in the next inning. The homer was her second in the game after belting a two-run shot in the third inning. She finished the game with three RBI.
The championship game appearance was the first for a Mater Dei/Marian Catholic team since 2002 when the Crusaders finished runner-up to Christian by a 1-0 score. Marian won the Class 2A title in 1987 by defeating Mar Vista 6-0.
The long length of time between CIF titles was not lost on anyone in the Crusader organization: 23 years.
“The seniors got something to take away,” MDC coach Mike Centrullo said. “In the playoffs, we proved over and over again that we were a team that battled against the best teams right to the end. Ideally this is where you want to be at the end of the year. Our team kept its composure and the girls kept battling all the way. We have five freshmen, two seniors and the rest juniors and sophomores. The girls have all banded together. It’s been a strong team effort.”
Tamayo echoed those comments. “I wanted to be there for my team when we were struggling and I was,” she said.
The senior shortstop used some quick-thinking strategy to produce the game-winning home run.
“I was in the batting circle and I noticed their pitcher (Alli Gunter) threw a change-up on her first pitch to our player,” Tamayo said. “I was expecting her to throw me a change-up on her first pitch and, when she did, I was waiting for it. I pulled it inside and kept saying to myself, ‘get out, get out.’ I got so excited when I finally saw it go over the fence that I missed first base and had to go back and touch it.”
Understandably, Tamayo was mobbed by teammates upon arriving at home plate. But the game wasn’t over. The Crusaders still had to get three outs to secure the division championship.
That was accomplished in the bottom of the seventh inning as starter Maritza Lopez-Portillo (18-9) set down the Patriots in order.
1-2-3. CIF champions.
Lopez-Portillo allowed eight hits and struck out three batters to avenge the semifinal loss to the Patriots. She also helped her cause by going three-for-four at the plate with two runs scored and one RBI. The MDC pitcher doubled in teammate Veronica Vargas and then scored on an error to put the South County squad up 5-3.
Kim Tamayo, Wendy’s sister, went two-for-four at the plate and also tagged out a Christian player at the plate to prevent further damage in the Patriots’ two-run fifth inning.
Michelle Centrullo, the team’s other senior captain, scored the Crusaders’ first run on an error before Tamayo drove a pitch over the center field fence to score both Lopez-Portillo and herself.
Freshman Katherine Day led Christian with two hits and two RBI. Day and Stephanie Nash both drove in runs in the fifth inning, with Nash laying down a perfect bunt single to score Mary Grabowski. Gentry drove in Monique Elliott on a double in the first inning and Day followed with a bases-loaded bloop single to score Gentry for a 2-0 Christian lead.
Lopez-Portillo wild-pitched in Elliott in the second inning to put the Patriots in front 3-0.
Gunter (17-6) took the loss in the pitching circle. She went the distance, allowing 11 hits total.
The Crusaders finished third behind the Bonita Vista Barons and Hilltop Lancers in the Mesa League standings, taking one game from Hilltop to help the Barons clinch the championship banner with one game left in regular season play.
Both Bonita Vista and Hilltop qualified for the Division I playoffs. The Barons lasted four games while the Lancers went out in three games. A 9-1 loss to visiting Granite Hills on May 26 kept Bonita Vista from advancing to the playback finals in Poway.
The fifth-seeded Barons (21-7-1) opened with wins against 12th-seeded Rancho Buena Vista (5-4) and fourth-seeded Poway before dropping a 4-3 decision to fourth-seeded Torrey Pines in nine innings.
The eighth-seeded Lancers (22-9) opened the playoffs with a 6-0 win against ninth-seeded San Pasqual before bowing out with narrow setbacks against Torrey Pines (3-1) and Poway (1-0).
Christian, the Eastern League runner-up, advanced to the final with four consecutive victories. The Patriots topped Tri-City Christian (11-5), Horizon Christian (3-1) and Palo Verde (6-2) leading up to the first encounter with Mater Dei.
San Diego Section Softball Finals
Saturday, May 29/UC San Diego
(2) El Camino 1, (1) Torrey Pines 0 (8 innings)
(2) Mt. Carmel 4, (1) West Hills 2
(2) University City 1, (1) Santana 0
(3) Marian Catholic 6, (1) Christian 5
Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders
(As listed on MaxPreps.com)
Michelle Centrullo 12
Yasmin Gilbert 9
Brina Morales 11
Wendy Tamayo 12
Avery Finch 9
Mikayla Conlin 11
Maritza Lopez-Portillo 10
Kim Tamayo 9
Taylor Cruse 9
Marissa Rios 11
Carina Erb 11
Brittani Lusain 9
Veronica Vargas 10
Road to a CIF Championship
San Diego Section Division IV Playoffs
Mater Dei 9, Escondido Charter 1
Play-in round/May 22
Carina Erb slammed two triples and drove in two runs to propel the Crusaders past the 14th-seeded White Tigers (13-14). Mater Dei out-hit Escondido Charter 10-3.
Mater Dei 8, Madison 3
First round/May 24
Kim Tamayo went three-for-three with a double, triple and four RBI to pace the Crusaders past the sixth-seeded Warhawks (23-6). Maritza Lopez-Portillo improved to 15-8 by firing a three-hitter.
Mater Dei 10, Holtville 0
Second round/May 25
Kim Tamayo went three-for-four with a triple and three RBI to spur the Crusaders in the rout.
Christian 5, Mater Dei 4
The Crusaders were within one strike of advancing to the championship game before Christian’s Ricki Gentry hit a game-winning two-run home run to lift the Patriots to the dramatic come-from-behind victory.
Mater Dei 10, Palo Verde 5
Playback final/May 27
The Crusaders scored six runs in the top of the sixth inning to erase a 5-4 Yellow Jacket lead. Maritza Lopez-Portillo (17-9) picked up the win.
Mater Dei 6, Christian 5
Championship game/May 29
Wendy Tamayo hit two home runs, including the game-winner in the bottom of the sixth inning, to snap a 5-5 tie and hand the Crusaders their the first CIF division title since 1987.