Mountain Ridge is a win away from its first berth in the state softball finals after knocking off No. 1 seed Gilbert 4-3 in Division I playoff action Monday at the Rose Mofford Sports Complex in Phoenix.
Trailing 3-1 entering the top of the sixth the Mountain Lions got exactly what they needed from their No. 2, 3 and 4 hitters. Junior Taylor Kaye was hit by a pitch and senior Corrin Green followed with a bloop single.
Junior Alyssa DiCarlo drilled a 1-1 pitch to straight away center and the three-run bomb regained the lead for No. 4 Mountain Ridge.
"I guess I kind of knew what was coming," DiCarlo said. "To be honest, I just saw it and hit it. It was a perfect pitch. You don't really think when you go up there."
From there the Mountain Lions relied on the pitching of sophomore Giselle Juarez and the defense behind her, sending the Tigers down in order in their final two times at bat.
Juarez struck out six, but coach Michelle Markham said she was more impressed with her in-game adjustments than anything else.
"I was not comfortable being up by one," Markham said. "I think the biggest thing is Giselle is pitching smarter than she ever has. She's hitting the corners and when they were starting to free swing and get excited about her pitches, she threw more balls further out with more movement."
The pitcher also helped her cause early. DiCarlo led off the second inning with a double and freshman Jailene Carpio raced for an infield single.
Juarez drove in DiCarlo for a 1-0 advantage.
The pitcher and her defense had to contend with Gilbert's speedy top of the order.
With one out in the bottom of the third, senior Alex Astorga and junior Emma Ocker reached safely with a pair of expertly placed bunts.
Senior Taylor McCord roped a double to the gap to bring both runners home. Then in the fourth inning senior Mackensie Garretson scored from third thanks to a throwing error on sophomore Tammy Froehlich's bunt.
From there, however, Juarez allowed only one hit. And the Mountain Lions finally got to junior pitcher Lynsey Duncan, who only allowed runners in scoring position in the second and sixth innings.
"That's the big difference we've had this year from past years. The girls stay composed and they know they can battle back," Markham said.
No. 4 Mountain Ridge (27-6-1) faces No. 7 Scottsdale Chaparral at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in a semifinal at Mofford. The Firebirds have been a thorn in the Mountain Lions' side, ousting them from the playoffs last year and winning this year's regular season matchup 8-0.
On the other hand, the team's last two wins, including a quarterfinal against Chandler Hamilton, came against foes it had lost to earlier.
"The biggest thing (those losses) taught us is every inning and every play matters. For a while there we were getting away with having one bad inning," Markham said. "It was exactly what we needed."
That loss on April 17 kicked off a rough two-week stretch in which Mountain Ridge lost three of its final six games. But the defeats came at the hands of fellow final eight teams — O'Connor and Phoenix Xavier Prep were the other two.
In a strange way this development may have benefited the team. Many Mountain Lions returned from the 2013 team that entered the playoffs on an 18-game winning streak.
They got to this round last season before losses on consecutive days to Mesa Mountain View and Chaparral abruptly ended their run.
As the program has learned, it's better to have a bad week in late April instead of early May.
"Last year we didn't know how it felt to lose. So when we lost it was downhill from there," DiCarlo said. "We know what it feels like and we're more prepared this year."