PREP SOFTBALL: Orange Cove dethroned as D-IV softball champions

Third-seeded Pioneer Valley uses aggressive offense to deny Titans a shot at a third consecutive section final with 8-3 semifinal victory

Orange Cove High catcher Alexis Summers slaps a tag on Pioneer Valley High’s Kianna Real as pitcher Mia Castillo backs up the play during the fourth inning of the Titans’ 8-3 Division IV softball semifinal playoff loss to the Panthers on May 22. The two-time reigning D-IV champions were done in by four errors and 10 hits by the third-seeded visitors. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published May 23, 2024  • 
11:00 am

ORANGE COVE – Orange Cove High’s bid for a rare third consecutive Central Section softball championship came to an end Wednesday night at the hands of a hungry, offensively-aggressive Pioneer Valley High team.

The Titans’ normal steady defense suffered an uncharacteristic off night, committing four errors as the visiting No. 3 seed Panthers (13-12) added 10 hits on offense to post an 8-3 semifinal victory at OCHS varsity field. Pioneer Valley will play top-seeded Mission College Prep (a 2-0 semifinal winner over Kerman High) on Saturday, May 25 in a 1:30 p.m start at Fresno State’s Margie Wright Diamond. 

The defeat capped a near three-year championship run for Orange Cove, which posted a combined 72-24-1 with consecutive D-IV titles and a Southern California regional crown in 2022. The regional loss last season came by a 1-0 score to the eventual SoCal champions.

“It’s hard to three-peat, nobody’s ever done it,” said Titans head coach Victor Contreras. “I’m happy for the girls that are leaving as two-time (section) champs, we got a state championship. You get greedy, you want more but sometimes it’s not meant to be.“

Meanwhile, Pioneer Valley coach Kristina Sewell praises her team’s performance in what was a huge step forward for the program. It’s the first finals appearance for the Panthers, who lost to Mission Prep in the 2022 semifinals.

“We came out and we consistently had each other’s backs and had really good hits,” she said. “I’m proud of my girls for staying solid on defense and my pitcher (junior Ciena Acosta) staying focused for seven innings. Just 100% a team effort.”

The visitors were aggressive from the start against veteran Castillo, with leadoff hitter Mila Dolores (3-for-5, three runs scored) opening the game by fouling off six pitches in an 11-pitch at-bat. That symbolized a tough night for the senior righthander, who struck out nine but walked four with a tight strike zone. There also were two wild pitches and a pair of passed balls.

Pioneer Valley scored a run in the second inning and two more in the third, getting an infield single and error to go up 3-0. Orange Cove battled back with a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame, taking advantage of a Panthers error for the first run and then getting a run-scoring loop single to right by Maddie Powers.

It was the Titans’ strongest inning against Acosta, who worked around six hits and struck out 10 while walking just one. Castillo was on third base representing the tying run, but freshman Kylee Gomez was retired on a line drive to right field that hung up and was caught.

The Panthers went right back to work, collecting two singles and a walk for another run although Kianna Real was cut down at the plate on a relay throw. The visitors kept the heat on in the fifth, making it 5-2 on a two-out RBI single by Marissa Dolinger that was followed by another putout at home plate.

Titans senior third baseman Star Elizondo brought a thrill to the home crowd with a long solo home run to right center to lead off the bottom of the fifth, and another rally appeared to be brewing after Miah Lopez drew a walk. But Acosta struck out Castillo swinging, then retired Powers and Gomez on fly balls to right.

Pioneer Valley broke it open with two runs in the sixth on two hits and an error, then tacked on a final run in the seventh. Left fielder Hazel Ocejo prevented more damage with a lunging backhand catch on a deep line drive.

Freshman Lexie Curiel went 3-for-4 with two runs knocked in for Pioneer Valley, which starred three first-year players and had just one senior. Ocejo had two of Orange Cove’s six hits.

Castillo finished her four-season Titans career with a 55-13 pitching record, 1.18 earned run average with 640 strikeouts to just 91 walks. On offense, she batted .402 with 125 hits, 14 home runs and 108 runs batted in.

Elizondo is another longtime veteran of the teams’ success, finishing her senior season with a .461 average, six home runs and 35 RBI.

“What they’ve accomplished has been great, and I wish all my seniors the best of luck in the future,” Contreras said.

Jon Earnest