PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles Bearcats entered their senior night game on Tuesday against the Templeton Eagles with a one-game lead in the Mountain League at 10-1 and with a win over Templeton would be the outright Mountain League Champions. The Lady Bearcats have been on an absolute tear since dropping their first league game of the season to their rival Atascadero Greyhounds 1-0 on March 12. After the loss to the Hounds, the Bearcats reeled off 10 consecutive wins and won 12 of their final 14 to close out the regular season but came up short to the Eagles 4-2 in 10 innings.
All season it seemed that the Hounds and Bearcats would tie atop the Mountain League with each finishing the season with only one loss to each other until Atascadero lost to San Luis Obispo on April 18, which opened the door for Paso Robles to win the outright title. All the Bearcats needed was a win at home on senior night against Ashley Daugherty and the Templeton Eagles but a loss would leave the door open for Atascadero to earn a share of the title.
The softball stadium was draped in crimson and love notes were etched into the chainlink fence via red solo cups as Paso Robles honored their three seniors, Lya Abel, Kirra Vargas and Brooke Milder, before the first pitch. While the Eagles are firmly in third place in the Mountain League, they are the last team anyone would want to see in a must-win game. Daugherty has the ability to throw a no-hit on any given afternoon and draws equal respect when she steps into the batter’s box, and with nothing on the line for the Eagles, their younger players could play free and unencumbered.
“You know, today, I just wanted to make sure I stayed loose and make sure my team stayed loose,” Daugherty said after the game. “Because we had nothing to lose going into this game and we knew that they, on the other hand, had everything to lose...So we just came out here to have fun and play hard.”
The Bearcats also had their ace toeing the rubber in freshman Jaiden Ralston who entered the game with a 16-2 record and only a 1.04 earned run average on the season. From the first at-bat, it was clear that the Eagles came for a fight as leadoff hitter Izzy Crowne fouled off four pitches in her 10-pitch at-bat that ended in a strikeout.
Redhot Bella Backer stepped into the box next and took the second pitch she saw over the centerfield wall giving the Eagles a 1-0 lead.
Paso Robles answered back in the home half of the first. Two future division one softball players matched up to start the bottom half of the first as Daugherty, the Texas A&M commit, pitched to Milder, the Seattle University commit, and the two put together a professional at-bat that eventually ended in a walk to Milder. The speedy shortstop then stole second and was bunted over to third before finally scoring on a sacrifice fly to left field by Abel.
The Eagles regained the lead in the third inning as Crowne singled in her next at-bat, this time taking the first pitch she saw and knocking it into right field. Crowne took second on a passed ball and after the first of two intentional passes to Daugherty and Alani Mott brought Crowne home on an RBI groundout to give Templeton a 2-1 lead.
The Bearcats again responded, this time an inning later, as Abel reached base on an error to start the fourth inning. Daugherty only threw two wild pitches throughout the entire 10 innings but they came in back-to-back at-bats as Abel reached third and eventually home on a sacrifice fly by McKenna Smith.
The next five frames stayed blank as each team continued to make plays. Ralston dug herself into a hole in the fifth inning giving up a leadoff double to Alex Dahlen and a sacrifice bunt moved her to third with only one out. Ralston then had to face the teeth of the Eagles’ order with Backer, who homered in the first inning, and Daugherty up next. As she has all year, Ralston rose to the occasion striking out Backer, issuing another intentional pass to Daugherty and striking out the next batter to get out of the inning unscathed.
The Bearcats plan to pitch around Daugherty worked until they stopped using it. Daugherty cranked a single into center in the seventh and scored the eventual winning run in the tenth when she roped a double to centerfield that rolled through the legs of a Bearcats defender and all the way to the wall. Daugherty reached third on the error and scored on Mott’s groundout in the next at-bat.
“It is kind of a good feeling [getting the respect of the intentional walk], you know, in the moment it’s not so good because I want to be able to perform but it lets me know that they have that respect for me,” Daugherty said following the game. “And playing Paso is always my favorite game because I was actually supposed to go to Paso High but then transferred to Templeton.”
While the Eagles are firmly in third place in the Mountain League at 6-5 and 12-5 overall, they are surrounded by teams that are currently in Division 1 while they themselves will be in the CIF Central Section Division 3 playoffs. Templeton is currently ranked No. 3 in Division 3 and will be hosting at least one playoff game. This season has been interesting for the Eagles who transitioned this year from one of the top teams in the area last year to a team with eight freshmen led by an MVP.
“I think this season, for me, has been more about helping others grow,” Daugherty said. “It is more about me mentoring and leading our freshmen since we have eight and only two seniors. It hasn’t really been about chasing the title this year or chasing the ring like it was last year, this year has just been about developing and getting better for the years to come.”
The Eagles have experienced growing pains this year and had to learn to win but are playing some of their best softball as they head to the postseason.
Even with the loss, the Paso Robles Bearcats are still co-Mountain League champions and currently ranked No. 6 in Division 1 according to Maxpreps.com. The Bearcats will enter the playoffs having won 12 of their last 15 games with one of the losses coming to the No. 1 team in the Division and the sixth-ranked team in the state in the Buchanan Bears.
“I mean it is definitely disappointing, this loss because we knew,” Milder said. “We’ve beaten them before we could have beat them again but we just beat ourselves, I think, is the biggest issue here. We talked about it after that we win as a team and we lose as a team so we aren’t blaming it on any one thing or any one person.”
Paso Robles’ regular season is complete and they can sit back and watch how the rest of the league shakes out. If the Hounds can take care of the last-place St. Joseph Knights they will draw even with the Bearcats at the top of the league at 10-2.
“This loss is obviously disappointing but I think tomorrow it will be more of a, ‘look how far we have actually come and how much we got done,’” Milder said. “And we came together as a team and I think this one just slipped out of our fingers but I am so proud of the team for getting first place even if we are sharing it.”
A loss of this magnitude at this point of the season can do two things to a team, it can either galvanize the girls and refocus them for a deep CIF run or it can bring them down and lead to an early playoff exit. PRHS head coach Billy Tidwell hopes for the former and is encouraged by what he saw from his girls.
“You know what, a lot of the girls were upset after the game and I said, ‘good, it should mean something and I want you to be upset,’” Tidwell said. “So they can learn from it and I'll be happy and we can use it as a springboard to get refocused to make a run at that third season.”