Freedom took a 3-2 lead into the seventh inning and had the Grizzlies down to their final out when Krista Miller launched a two-strike double into right field. Mariah Nisbet followed Miller's blast with a fly ball to left-centerfield gap and off the glove of rangy left fielder Courtney Biglow, scoring pinch runner Cassi Mosser from second base to tie the game.
"Courtney didn't step wrong or move wrong - it just went off her glove. She had to break hard to her left to cover the ball in the gap. I still can't think of anybody who'd be a better left fielder," said head coach Michele Moore.
Cal poured it on in the eighth inning, sending 10 batters to the plate and scoring seven times against pitcher Hannah Williams, whose dominance in the circle this season earned her the Bay Valley Athletic League's MVP award.
The Falcons managed a run in the home half of the eighth, but the seven-run deficit was simply too great an obstacle for the young Freedom team to overcome.
Moore felt that her team's youth and playoff inexperience played a major factor in Wednesday's game slipping away. With just three returning seniors and two first-year seniors joining the squad, the team lacked the playoff seasoning required to cope with the late-inning adversity.
"It was tough once we got into the seventh," Moore admitted. "The tied game just made it a whole new ballgame and I don't think the girls realized that."
Wednesday's loss snapped a 21-game postseason win streak for Freedom, and was just the second home loss for the team all season. "Everybody absorbed the loss and felt it was their fault and that there was something they could have done better," said Moore. "I know all the girls are second and third guessing what they could have done better. Nobody took it harder than Hannah."
Williams threw a solid game against Cal, striking out six and hitting her spots throughout the contest, although the Grizzlies still managed to hit the ball hard against the standout sophomore. Williams allowed 11 hits on the day, including a pair of solo homers by junior Katie Foley, who finished the game 3-for-3 at the dish with four RBIs, as well as doubles by Miller and Christine Taylor.
"They hit some good pitches," said Moore. "One pitch got up there (in the strike zone), but they did a good job of hitting some very good pitches."
Although the early exit from the playoffs certainly comes as a disappointment to a program that has dominated the softball landscape for half a decade, the accomplishments of this year's team can't go without notice.
Freedom began the season 3-4 before finding its groove mid-season. The team finished the regular season riding the crest of a 12-game win streak and annihilated Berkeley 10-0 its opening-round NCS contest.
The team's success this season, in what many observers considered to be a "rebuilding year" for East County's most dominant softball program, raises the expectation level for next year's team. "Freedom has always done a great job of raising the bar," said Moore. "This year's success forces the girls to step up next season. Adversity builds character and makes you that much stronger."
Despite coming up short in their bid for a sixth consecutive NCS title, Moore counts this season as one of her most gratifying coaching experiences, praising her players for their winning attitude, camaraderie and class on and off the field.
"Everybody executed, not just the top half or the bottom half (of the order). Everybody contributed," Moore said of her team's run to its sixth consecutive BVAL title. "I couldn't be more proud of my team. They did what everybody said they couldn't do."