LA JOYA — La Joya Palmview returned home Thursday night looking to exact revenge and earn its first win on the diamond in nearly a month.
The Lobos, who faced multiple COVID-19 stoppages and schedule changes throughout March, took the field for their third district game in a four-day stretch to face Rio Grande City — the 25th-ranked Class 5A team in the Texas Girls Coaches Association poll — after falling to the Rattlers on Monday.
Palmview, however, bounced back behind the strength of its defense, timely hitting and aggressive baserunning to notch a 5-1 victory over RGC and hand the Rattlers their first loss in district play this season.
“I’m so proud. I knew what they were capable of,” La Joya Palmview head coach Jessica Cardenas-Russell said. “They’re young. I hope this really shows them everything that they can do because it’s been a bumpy, bumpy road for us. I’m just extremely, extremely proud of them because we closed as a team and you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
The victory culminated a chaotic month of softball for the Lobos, who had to delay the start of their district schedule in early March due to COVID-19 concerns.
That sidelined Palmview for two weeks before the team was able to return and squeak past Mission Veterans at home in its District 30-5A before being sidelined again for an additional program-wide quarantine.
That left an inexperienced Lobos squad that features just four returning starters one game during a 24-day stretch. It derailed a three-game winning streak to begin the year and presented the team with a nine-game district slate to close out the final three weeks of the regular season.
After falling to the Rattlers on Monday and dropping a back-and-forth 9-8 game at Mission Veterans on Tuesday, though, Palmview was able to put all the pieces together Thursday in its most complete outing of the season to date.
“As a coach, I can only put them where I see the best fit this puzzle. To see them finally mold and actually work together, it’s amazing,” Cardenas-Russell said. “I always tell the girls from last year to this year, everything is just so unpredictable. You just never know. … I tell them don’t take it for granted and appreciate every game because there’s so many that don’t have this opportunity.”
The Lobos maximized their opportunities in their grudge-match game against Rio Grande City.
The Rattlers struck first in the top of the third on an infield single, but Palmview quickly struck back.
The Lobos strung together three consecutive hits during a two-out rally in the bottom of the inning to tie it up and took the lead thanks to opportunistic base running that allowed the go-ahead run to score on a passed ball.
Palmview pieced together another rally during the sixth inning that helped break the game open.
Second baseman Bianca Fernandez and pitcher Arianna Alaniz led off the inning with back-to-back singles and each stole a base on throws into the infield.
That immediately paid off in the next at-bat, when Alaniz sprinted home on a hard-hit grounder to third and ducked under the catcher’s mitt to avoid the tag at home plate.
Right fielder Itzel Villarreal delivered the biggest hit of the night in the ensuing plate appearance, doubling to deep right field to push two more runs across.
“That (timely hitting and base running) both come from my experienced players. You can tell because they’re so savvy when it comes to that base running,” Cardenas-Russell said. “At times as a coach, you just let them do what they know how to do because sometimes they’re so quick that by the time (I notice), they’re gone. This last one with Bianca, they hit a grounder that bounced up in front of her and before I could say (go), she was gone.”
The biggest difference makers for the Lobos on Thursday night, though, were their pitching and defense.
Alaniz, a freshman, delivered the best outing of her high school career thus far, tossing seven innings and striking out five Rattlers while allowing just one extra-base hit to one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most prolific offenses.
Palmview also countered Rio Grande City’s small-ball approach, routinely defending against the bunt and throwing runners out at the plate.
After taking the lead for good, the Lobos left four Rattlers’ base runners stranded in scoring position to thwart a late-game comeback attempt.
“Defensively, we’ve struggled,” Cardenas-Russell said. “We struggled the first time with (defense) at their place. We were on the other side of it (tonight). We were leaving a lot of (their) runners on base.”
Palmview improves to 2-2 in District 30-5A with the win and moves into third place in the district, positioning the Lobos to make their first postseason appearance in school history with a strong finish to the regular season.
Rio Grande City will return to action to host Roma in the second round of the Starr County Classic at 6 p.m. Friday, April 9, while the Lobos will host Laredo Cigarroa at 6 p.m. Tuesday before traveling to face the Toros in Laredo at the same time Friday.