The Leopards were unable to hold off the Chapman Panthers at home on senior night in a 5-2 loss April 29.
The loss came after the sudden absence of their head coach Dennis Blas, who suffered a heart attack April 25, a few days after their three-game sweep of Cal Lutheran. Blas is in good health and was in attendance for the series against the Panthers even though he did not coach.
“The assistant coaches (Yvon Minogue, Tara Anaya and Rachel Minogue) took over today and they did a great job,” Blas said. “They got everybody back (from COVID) but lost me. We’re going to continue and try to get better this series. We didn’t play great this game but we learned a lot.”
For senior night, the team honored its graduating seniors – utility player Kathryn Navarro, catcher Bailey Grani, infielder Jillian Gellatly and pitcher Katelyn Shephard.
The Panthers were quick to get on the board as they recorded three hits in the first inning, but the Leopards’ defense held them to only one run.
The Leopards answered right back with a run of their own after sophomore center fielder Haylee Hsieh walked, stole second base and advanced to third on an out. Hsieh has 33 stolen bases this season, accounting for 46% of the Leopards’ team total by herself.
A single from junior catcher Natalia Aguilera brought Hsieh home for the Leopards’ first run of the night. Aguilera has been a big hitter for the Leopards this season, leading the team in slugging percentage with .625 and batting .394.
“I’m pretty proud of my season. I never let these averages get in my head so it is nice to hear that my work produces onto the field. I want to carry this momentum into the (postseason) tournament. Hearing it boosts my confidence in a way,” Aguilera said.
In the second inning, the Panthers scored another run after freshman shortstop Grace Fosselman stole home on the front end of a double steal. This time the Leopards could not answer back, and the Panthers led, 2-1.
The Leopards had the opportunity to tie the game in the third inning when Hsieh stole second base and advanced to third again, this time off of a bunt from junior shortstop Taylor Gray. But the offense fizzled and the rally died there.
The Panthers widened the gap in the fifth inning, recording five hits and three runs to move the game out of reach for the Leopards.
Down 5-1 heading into the final inning, the Leopards’ offense had to get going against the Panthers. Two hits and a crucial error by Fosselman gave the Leopards a run, making the final score, 5-2.
Junior pitcher Rachel Rubio went the distance for the Leopards, giving her a 13-9 record on the season.
“This past month has been difficult for us, with COVID affecting the team and coach having to be out,” Rubio said. “I feel like being able to stay together and battle through tough times and adversities that we have had, I am proud of our team for that.”
The series moved to Chapman for a doubleheader Saturday, where the Leopards won game one, 6-3, and the Panthers took game two, 4-1.
The Leopards finished the regular season with a record of 26-14. Their record of 13-8 in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference put them in a tie for second place with Chapman, who own the tiebreaker after winning the weekend series.
“I’m really happy with how this season went. We started the season off very strong so I hope it finishes off very strong,” Hsieh said. “We are looking to carry all this momentum into the SCIAC playoffs so we’re hoping for a positive ending. We’re hoping to make a run at that championship.”
The Leopards are the third seed in the SCIAC postseason tournament, where they get a rematch with second seeded Chapman on the Panthers’ home field at 4 p.m. Friday. On the other half of the bracket, top seed Redlands will take on the fourth seed, Pomona-Pitzer.
Eric Esquibel can be reached at email@example.com.