Whether one is an 8-year-old making their Little League debut or a 38-year-old en route to their Tuesday night, slow-pitch softball game, the hypothetical scenario is every cinema’s matinee and midnight showing: bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth. At the plate is the future heroine with an opportunity to bring her team victory in walk-off fashion. It’s a chance to be the woman of the hour, to become lost in the joyous mob that clobbers her once the winning run has officially scored.
It’s an at-bat that so rarely presents itself — and the opportunity alone is no guarantee that a winning hit will follow. But for senior Karlee Sparacino, that dream at-bat became a reality in the bottom of the seventh in Sunday’s home opener against Saint Mary’s.
And so did the winning hit.
With the game tied at 4-4 and Bears on every base, Sparacino sprayed a single to left to complete Cal’s come-from-behind victory. The hit, Sparacino’s second of the afternoon, made it two hits in her first two at-bats since undergoing ACL surgery last February.
“To be put in that position is an opportunity that not many people get,” Sparacino said. “To be at home … to see your team in so much joy and excitement after — it’s an awesome feeling.”
Heading into the seventh, though, the Bears appeared to be on the brink of a winless opening weekend. Down 4-2 with two outs, it was up to sophomore Candace Yingling. Makena Smith stood as Cal’s lone base runner after sending a chopper through the Saint Mary’s diving middle infielders, and Yingling would not leave her stranded. Patience at the plate proved key, as Yingling worked the count full against Saint Mary’s Sofia Earle before belting the game-tying home run over the left field fence.
Not willing to settle for extra innings, the blue and gold continued the two-out rally with a walk from Sona Halajian and back-to-back singles from Kacey Zobac and Morgan Zamora to load the bases for Sparacino.
Earlier innings saw Cal score first, courtesy of a Smith solo shot that extended her hitting streak to 21 games. After the Bears gave up a pair of runs in both the second and fourth, Smith’s double down the right field line in the bottom of the fifth brought Sabrina Nunez in to score, cutting the Gaels’ lead to two and sparking the momentum needed to earn the Bears’ first win of the season.
Cal’s efforts to start the season off in the win column Saturday were unsuccessful, as the team lost 3-0 at Sacramento State. Despite a strong collegiate debut from Halajian, who held the Hornets to just two earned runs in four-plus innings of work, the Bears could not find their rhythm at the plate against Sacramento’s Marissa Bertuccio. The Hornet right-hander dealt seven scoreless innings and was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the fourth, Cal’s best chance to score on the day.
“Coming off of [Saturday’s loss], we all hopped on a Zoom call with Coach Spencer early Sunday morning before our game,” Yingling said. “We went over how, ‘Yes, that happened, but if you can look yourself in the mirror every day and say that you gave it your all, wins and losses will take care of themselves.’ … If we can fight until the very last pitch, the very last inning, we’d be able to come back together as a team.”
The Bears certainly proved Sunday afternoon that they can play down to the last pitch, and they hope to carry the sentiment into next weekend’s games.
“[Sunday’s win] was a good tone-setter for the rest of the season,” Sparacino said. “We have new coaches, a young team — a lot of things that are new to all of us right now. … If we hold on to that feeling that we had, of the trust we had in our teammates and the excitement we had when we won, it’ll be something we can roll with throughout the season.”
Of the three teams Cal will see in the South Bay this weekend — the Cardinal and Cal Baptist at the Stanford Invitational from February 26-27 and the Broncos at Santa Clara Softball Stadium on Feb. 28 — the Bears’ stiffest competition should be their Bay Area rivals. Stanford is off to a fast 4-0 start, having outscored its competition 30-4 behind the big bats of Emily Schultz and Emily Young. The three-hole, cleanup duo is a combined 16 for 24, with 13 RBIs on the season so far.
Dating back to March 2014, Cal boasts a 14-2 record over the Cardinal, although Stanford came out on top in an 11-10, come-from-behind victory at Levine-Fricke Field in the most recent duel. To avoid a similar result, the Bears must tame the Cardinal’s offensive tear and play clean defense. Cal committed five errors in its first two games.
If Sunday does indeed set the tone for the blue and gold this season, someone will have to bring a boombox to the South Bay this weekend. Perhaps the next best thing for the Bears faithful after a bases-loaded, walk-off hit is hearing “Fight for California” on a sunny afternoon following a Cal victory.