Bruins motor to PVL three-peat

By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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LAKE OF THE PINES — The Bear River High softball team overwhelmed opponents with unrelenting speed all season. But the Bruins had to display some patience as they pursued their third straight Pioneer Valley League championship. Bear River could finally celebrate its outright PVL title Wednesday after a 7-3 win over visiting Whitney. A loss to Lincoln early in the season left the Bruins playing catch-up for much of the year, but they finished 11-1 to earn the league’s top seed for next week’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs. “It was harder work this year,” senior center fielder Tori Humbard said. “We lost some key players, some great athletes and we knew we had to come out and work hard and we did. It’s a nice feeling to end with some success (at home). We really didn’t want to be co-champions with Lincoln.” The Wildcats, who finished third in the PVL at 8-4, made Bear River work for its win Wednesday. Junior pitcher Rachel Hopping held the Bruins’ bats in check until the third inning when Bear River (22-3) rallied for three runs. Whitney got one run back in the fourth on an RBI-double by Tonya Crockett. Bear River junior Brittani Nix scored on an error in the bottom of the fourth to make it 4-1. The Bruins’ signature speed set up two more runs in the fifth. Junior Courtney Ceo led off with a perfect bunt-single. Katie Mathis hit into a fielder’s choice, but a double clutch by the third baseman allowed Mathis to motor safely into first base. Humbard’s fielder’s choice scored Ceo and a beautiful bunt-single by senior Kenzie Billings scored Mathis. Bear River tacked on one more run in the sixth as Ceo knocked in Nix with a single to left field. Billings was sharp on the mound. She pitched five innings, giving up five hits and one walk while striking out seven. Freshman Erin Nichol slammed the door, giving up one hit and one walk over the final two innings. Bruins’ coach Duane Zauner had concerns about his team when the season started. After winning two straight section titles, the Bruins lost all-Pioneer Valley League battery Kelly Shepard and Jenna Wermes to graduation last year. “I have to take my hat off to these kids because when we started, we had some holes, some question marks,” Zauner said. “They found a way to get better and unite as a team and become what you saw today.” Billings has emerged as a steady pitcher and senior Kathryn Rabak is invaluable behind the plate and with her big bat. Nichol has shined in her role as a reliever and the Bear River defense has emerged as a strength. The Bruins’ menacing speed makes defending them a difficult task. “Today on almost every play, you saw the defense in,” Zauner said. “We bunted the ball very well and put the pressure on them. We forced a couple rushed throws and we got a couple of extra runs.” The Bruins will open the playoffs next Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Arnaiz Stadium in Stockton. They will face the third seed from the Capital Valley Conference — either Center or Dixon.