From last to first. That is the situation the Live Oak High softball team finds itself in as it enters the final couple of games in Blossom Valley League play. The Acorns, who won only two games last year in the Mount Hamilton Division, entered the week at 11-5 overall and 10-2 in Santa Teresa Division play. The turnaround has been swift and dramatic, though not surprising.
For one, Live Oak returned most of its nucleus from last year’s team, core players who have another year of experience and improved in the off-season with their respective travel ball teams. And two, the Acorns dropped down to the Santa Teresa Division, which features some solid teams but isn’t as strong as the Mount Hamilton.
With a consistent pitcher like Nicole Bonino and a mix of seniors and talented underclassmen like sophomore Emma Courtney, the Acorns hope to close the season with a division championship and with that an automatic berth into the Central Coast Section playoffs. Since the start of last season, Bonino has pitched over 90 percent of the team’s innings, and she was perhaps at her very best in a 3-0 win over Evergreen Valley on May 1.
“It was great watching Nicole pitch,” Courtney said. “Sammy (Evans) and I were talking in the outfield, and we were fired up for every strike she threw and all of the outs (she recorded). It was super cool to see her do that on Senior Night.”
Courtney has been a strong presence in the lineup, along with Evans, Kylie Plant, Bella Anglikowski, Maddie Moore and Sydney Bell, just to name a few. In a 12-2 win over Gunderson High on April 24, Anglikowski and Courtney—the Nos. 2 and 3 hitters in the lineup that day—combined for six hits, five runs scored and five RBIs.
“Bella and Emma have been great all season,” Acorns coach Sarah Porras said. “Both are really consistent hitters, and that makes a world of difference. Both players can drop bunt, they can slap, and they come up with the big hit. They really give us an advantage at the 2 and 3 spots.”
Bonino has come back strong for her senior season. She utilizes tremendous movement and spin on her pitches, and has to hit her spots because she doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters. Evans has also contributed in the circle this season, which gives Porras an option to rest Bonino whenever the team plays multiple games in one day, on back to back days or if Bonino has to come out for atypical circumstances.
“Sammy is definitely capable,” Porras said. “She’s put in a lot of work in the off-season and has been training with ID3, and they’ve definitely improved her velocity and overall strength. I’ve seen a huge improvement in pitching from her and Nicole.”
Courtney has also improved, especially on the mental side. Last year as a freshman, Courtney didn’t have the confidence she has now. The increased level of belief she has in herself has made a huge difference in her becoming one of the team’s best players in 2019.
“I’m more comfortable now after a year with the team,” said Courtney, who plays all three outfield positions and first base and third base. “I feel like as a team we’re jelling more, and that makes everything better. I have a different mindset during the games. Last year when I got into a game, I was scared at times as a freshman. But now I’m going up there knowing I can get on base and help the team win.”
Courtney credited her coaches at Live Oak and her travel ball coach for answering her questions and helping her to improve physically and mentally, with the latter proving paramount.
“My coaches always talk about confidence and that you have to have more confidence than doubt or you will constantly have that doubt in your mind,” she said.
Courtney became a starter near the end of last season, earning the position as a freshman. She came back this season ready to be a game changer.
“She finds a way to get on base or be productive in almost every at-bat,” Porras said. “She is typically an outfielder for us, but we put her at third base and first base and she does a great job anywhere we put her.”
The vibe on this year’s team has been positive from the start, and even when the team opened the season at 0-3, it rebounded to win four straight.
“Our confidence and energy was way higher and we all cheer for each other,” Courtney said. “We stay pretty humble, and that is what keeps us the way we are.”