Calexico softball team makes state playoffs for first time in program history
CALEXICO, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - This past spring the Calexico lady bulldogs softball team achieved a program first, a trip to the CIF South Region State tournament.
Building a new tradition from the ground up. The Calexico girls softball team slugged their way to an undefeated record in desert league play. Then, when undefeated in the CIF San Diego section division three playoffs.
The bulldogs hopes and dreams finally arrived and the reality is, they did what no team ever accomplished before them.
Head coach Jennifer Lopez, an alumni from Calexico High School, says Calexico always had the talent but couldn't catch a break.
"What's the winning formula?" asks Lopez. "You have girls in the community that play all year round. We have a softball league that supports the sport. Why aren't we succeeding?"
She says girls on the team were losing hope, but not her.
"As a coach, I didn't lose hope. As a coach, I felt like okay now we just gotta redo everything," Lopez says.
Lopez took the job as head coach when this year's seniors were freshman along with her brother Luis Briseno as assistant coach. They both say these girls have come a long way.
"2020 was very difficult. One of the players mentioned that was probably a team that would have taken us far."
COVID ruined those chances and once again had to hit the reset button.
"Yes, you want to win titles and yes you want to have a winning program, that's always the goal but most importantly, figure out that piece of the puzzle as to what's going to make the program successful," says Lopez.
Lopez and Briseño had a plan.
"We set short term goals and then we kept to those short term goals and that was able to help us achieve our long term goals," Lopez says.
Not only did Coach Lopez have her brother Briseño helping her coach, but also had the opportunity to coach her two daughters, freshman Anahi Lopez and senior Andrea Lopez.
"I actually like having my mom as a coach especially because she has her brother by her side too, which is my uncle and this year I had my sister by my side so it felt more like a blessing being able to share the field with all three of them," says Andrea Lopez. "Because it's something we've never done so I just really appreciated every moment."
Assistant Coach Briseño says he was pressured by his sister Coach Lopez to help coach and he's glad he did.
"I've been a baseball guy and my goal is to one day be a head baseball coach but it was my sister where she pressured me to come coach softball. I said I don't know about softball, I've never played softball, I've never coached softball," says Briseño. "But I said okay I'll try it out and as the years went by and by, pretty much I can say I love coaching softball and I don't see myself coaching baseball anytime soon. I love the group of girls."
Coach Lopez says she enjoys coaching her daughters, but it's different.
"I do have to remove myself as a mom because I have to be very objective and i just have to make sure that my expectations are pretty much clear amongst all players," Coach Lopez says. "And sometimes I do feel bad for them because I wish I could be a mom in that moment and I can't. I'm being a coach or even when it's time to celebrate I have to remind myself, you know you can come back as a mom, you can be a mom in this moment and just savor the moment."
Coach Lopez says what's special about this team is their work ethic.
"And you can't coach work ethic. We preached all this season attitude effort, attitude and effort," says Coach Lopez. "And that's what we held them accountable for and they weren't here to waste their time."
That attitude and effort started to take form during the desert league regular season.
"They went undefeated in league, they went undefeated in CIF, they won CIF and then they made it to the state regionals," says Coach Lopez. "I don't even know if these girls know now what they did and i'm hoping one day they look back and they say man, we tore it up."
In the CIF semi-finals, Calexico faced a familiar foe, the Holtville Vikings.
With the game tied in the 8th inning, freshman Carolina Chong delivered the biggest hit of the year, a two out single that brought home senior Liah Valdez to give the bulldogs their first lead of the game.
"When I went up, I tried to block everything, block the fans and just worry between me and the pitcher," says Chong. "I don't even know what I was feeling. I just got to first and when I saw Liah come in, I just couldn't believe it. It was amazing."
In the bottom of the 8th, it was Valdez with the defensive play of the year.
"It was just a reaction and it happened and it happened at the best moment," says Valdez. "Playing them and putting up such a big fight against them and beating them, I think that made a statement knowing that they were IVL champs."
The win advanced Calexico to the CIF championship but it wouldn't be the last time they'd see the vikings.
Holtville won in the semi-final elimination round to set up and all or nothing showdown in San Diego for the right to advance to the state playoffs.
"All the hard work that us coaches, us players have been putting for the past four, five years is now you can kind of see it, it shows," says Assistant Coach Briseño.
With Calexico up 1-0 in the 3rd inning, Holtville's Kamryn Walker tied the score with a solo home run.
The bulldogs responses with some pint sized power. Senior Shanelle Gascon AKA "shorty" took the lead back on a home run in the 4th inning and the Calexico bulldogs would never look back.
"I've been in the slump and hitting that, I felt like I needed that for my team because we were going down as Kamryn hit the home run," says Gascon.
Calexico hung on to win the CIF Championship and advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in program history.
Coach Lopez says winning this time and seeing how this league has grown not just within this span but her as a player, what it was when she was a child and how it felt was the ultimate reward.
"I got text messages from my old coaches and the founder of the league and he said, watching you win is like watching all of us win," says Lopez. "And to me was extra special. Them even reaching out, coming here because it's been a long time coming for those who are involved."
Though, the state playoffs did not turn out the way the bulldogs intended versus top seed Granite Hills, but every single girl had a chance to play.
"It was a silver lining," says Coach Lopez. "You know you don't want to end your season with a loss, you don't but you do want to end the season giving everyone an opportunity."
Calexico did not fold, they did not tap out and in the top of the 6th inning, Andrea Lopez became the first lady bulldog to score a run and hit a home run in a state playoff game.
"It was one of the best experiences and we made history and there's nothing better than to end my senior year," says Andrea Lopez.
The bulldogs can't thank their fans enough for embracing them.
"It's a beautiful feeling knowing that your city supports you especially if you're playing with the city name on your jersey," says Andrea Lopez.
Coach Lopez says she's incredibly proud of her girls.
"At the end of the day that CIF trophy is great, the banner's great, the patches is great but what's greater is that what they accomplished this season," says Coach Lopez. "How their character was built and how they remained resilient are just characteristics that are going to set them up for success moving forward the rest of their life."
Although the bulldogs didn't advance as far as they wanted, they accomplished more than most people believed they could.
Now, the bar is set high for the future teams to follow them.