Amador Valley girls' softball team fights all the way to the top
There was a time last season -- a rather trying time -- which could ultimately be the key to the run the Amador Valley High girls' softball team has been enjoying.
The Dons season ended with a North Coast Section championship, but earlier in the year, an NCS title seemed the furthest possible ending to the season. It was a five-game losing skid that had the Dons and their coaching staff shaking their heads.
But Amador caught fire, winning first the East Bay Athletic League title and then the NCS crown. It brought some much-needed life to the Amador softball program and with the majority of players back for this season, the sky was the limit.
And with only four seniors on this team and an extremely talented group of sophomores, there were a lot of things to be excited about this year, as well as the future. Given the mix of talent along with the successful end to last season, the expectations were off the charts.
Amador Coach Julie Marshall knew focus would be the key to the season.
"We realized we were going to have targets on our backs, so we made a point to make mini-goals throughout the year," explained Marshall. "The goals have really made the girls keep focus."
Marshall was right about the target being on the Dons, at least in the EBAL and the NCS. But both regionally and nationally, the Dons still had something to prove.
Enter the mini-goals.
"We knew we would face Sheldon (Sacramento) and (Archbishop) Mitty of San Jose at some point and those were goals," said Marshall of the two Northern California and National powerhouses. "First was Queen of the Mountain where we faced Sheldon."
The result was a convincing 8-3 win and the No. 49 nationally ranked Dons began their rise up the National polls. Right after the Queen of the Mountain championship there was a non-league win over perennial NCS power James Logan, followed by EBAL play.
"Sheldon was a huge turning point for us," said junior Krista Williams. "There were not a lot of people who thought we could beat them."
Next up in the Northern California victory tour was an 8-1 spanking of Mitty in the semifinals of the Livermore Stampede. The Dons then closed out the tournament with an 11-0 win over Livermore in the finals.
"After Mitty, it made other people realize how good we could be," added Williams.
Senior Nicole Borchard saw the win over Mitty as even more than a confidence boost for the Dons.
"Winning those games did give us confidence, but I think it made us more intimidating," said Borchard, one of the four seniors on the team.
In reality, those two wins were the kick-start for the Dons to go from being ranked in the 40s to their current spot as the No. 4 team in the nation, according to the ESPNHS Powerade Fab 50.
Borchard has a unique perspective to the Dons' success as it wasn't so long ago that the Amador softball program was almost an afterthought both in the EBAL as well as on the Amador campus.
"I remember my freshman and sophomore seasons, softball was not very popular at Amador," said Borchard. "This year the teachers come out and the students are talking about how cool the national ranking is and how good we have done."
The improvement at Amador began when Coach Marshall, now in her fifth year at Amador, came to the program. The former Liberty High and UCLA star brought a new mindset to the program, even without initial success.
"When I first came in, there wasn't a lot of belief we could win," said Marshall, an All-American catcher at UCLA. "We are now there -- it took a little bit longer than we would have liked -- but we are there now."
The next big step came last year when a bumper crop of freshmen came into the program. Included in the lot is the pitcher-catcher combo of Johanna Grauer and Victoria Molina.
Grauer, who has already committed to Arizona State as a sophomore, has led the surge to the top from the pitcher's circle.
In fact, Grauer's stats this year are downright scary and make it easy to see why Arizona State -- a consistent collegiate powerhouse -- has itself one of the top recruits in the country.
Heading into the NCS playoffs, Grauer was 22-0 -- a perfect 14-0 in EBAL play -- and had 18 shutouts. She gave up all of seven earned runs in her 152 innings pitched for a stunning .322 earned run average.
She faced 538 batters this year, giving up only 41 hits, walking 26 and striking out 289 batters.
"Johanna has carried us in the circle," said Marshall. "But she also has been great on offense. She's has been a big key to our success."
After leading the Dons to the NCS title last year as a freshman, the mission this year was clear to Grauer and she has relished the chance to lead the way again.
"We wanted to win again and the goal was to be undefeated," said Grauer. "We know we can win. I am a competitive person and every time I am out there I am trying to strike out (the batter). It drives me to work hard every time."
But as is the case with all great teams, the Dons are far from a one-player team. On offense, sophomore Nicole Yozzo is hitting .463, with Borchard at .395 and Williams at .341.
Molina is hitting a slick .435 and handles the catching duties with ease making it arguably the top sophomore battery in the state.
"We have a great catcher behind the dish," said Williams of Molina. "She can frame it and she can throw it. She also gets it done on offense."
Lost in the offensive prowess of the team is their team defense. With Grauer striking out over half the batters she faces, it would be easy to see a defense get complacent. But that is far from the case for the Dons.
"I can't say enough about our defense," said Marshall. "When teams put the ball in play, they make the plays. It would be easy to sit back and think Johanna is going to strike everyone out, but we are really into mental training. We talk about it every day. We have them close their eyes and we talk to them about (staying sharp)."
As is the case with any team, there have been anxious moments for the Dons. Twice this season, California High has taken Amador into extra innings before Amador pulled out the win.
"Sometimes we start slow, but we always seem to be able to ignite the fire," said Grauer.
"Personally, I feel we are good enough to always pull through," added Molina. "There has to be some confidence but not be cocky. We feed off each other."
The Dons went through the regular season without a loss, locking up the EBAL title with a 14-0 mark and the No. 1 seed in the NCS playoffs with a 24-0 mark.
There is work to be done as the Dons realize three wins and they have the perfect season, but one loss ends their season.
"No one wants to end the season with a loss," said Grauer. "I'm happy we are unbeaten and we want to end it that way."
Regardless of how the NCS championships play out, this has been a tremendous run for the Dons. The girls have become one unit, both on and off the field, with the sophomores, juniors and seniors turning into one big family.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Borchard. "We have all become such good friends. I really want to end my senior year on a high note."
And the team has also turned the season into a mission for more than just the Amador roster.
"We are playing for everyone," said Molina. "We are playing for school and city pride."