May 26, 2017 5:33 AM
Hailee Rios can see the end of her San Marcos High softball career fast approaching.
But she’s also got the softball dead in her sights.
Rios continued her torrid playoff hitting, belting a two-run home run in the first inning and preserving that lead with five innings of one-hit pitching in the Royals’ 2-0 victory over visiting Beckman High in Thursday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4 quarterfinal.
“I’m definitely seeing the ball a lot better than I was before,” said Rios, who got two of San Marcos’ three hits and is now 9-for-12 (.750) in the team’s three playoff victories – the most ever in school history.
Her prep career will continue for at least one more game on Tuesday when San Marcos (22-7) travels to Beaumont (21-8) for its first softball semifinal ever.
Rios boosted her batting average to .512 by going 2-for-3. Her big, first-inning blow was no surprise to Royals coach Jeff Swann even though it was just her third homer of the year.
“She hit .500 for the season, she just wasn’t getting the long ball,” Swann said. “There were a lot of balls that she hit during the season that never went above eye level, and were just literally on a rope, and were outs.
“She’s hit the ball hard all season. She hits them deep in practice and just hasn’t always hit them deep in games.”
Freshman Savannah Tait also connected on three big swings. The last two were run down by Beckman centerfielder Katelyn Pang, but she couldn’t catch up to Tait’s double to left-center with one out in the first.
“She’s so strong, she hits the ball hard like that,” Swann said. “Our top six can all hit them out.”
Rios did just that moments later, staying back on a changeup from Patriots pitcher Christy Kelly before banging it well over Pang’s head in center.
“My father makes me practice a lot on changeups because people try to throw me off with it all the time,” she said, referring to Royals first-base coach A.J. Rios.
The homer brought her to within one of the team lead shared by juniors Hayley Fryklund and Aliyah Huerta-Leipner. Tait has also hit three, with the team total now up to 16.
“It IS (a competition),” Rios said with a laugh, “but it’s really nice to see the younger ones succeeding and doing so well.
“Compared to last year, Fry (Fryklund) has really stepped it up and her batting average is really good right now.”
Fryklund also snagged hard ground balls at third base for both the first and the last outs of the game.
“She’s just solid, coming up and getting balls that are going through the gap,” Swann said.
Rios retired Beckman’s first nine batters while notching seven of her nine strikeouts. The Patriots did get runners to second and third bases with one out in the fourth on a walk and a dropped throw, San Marcos’ only error of the game.
But freshman catcher Morgan Jensen plucked a tricky popup just off the backstop screen before Fryklund’s shoestring catch ended the inning.
“Mo is super-talented,” Swann said of Jensen. “She works hard. She’s working an extra three days a week outside of practice just on catching drills, so it pays off, there’s no question.”
The Patriots rallied again with one out in the fifth when Emma Herrera squirted their only hit to right field and Emily Wannenmacher walked. But Rios responded with a strikeout and a pop-out to end the threat.
The only time the team felt nervous, she inssited, was before the game started.
“There were a little bit of jitters because of how many people were in the stands for the girls, but right after the first inning, they settled in,” Rios said. “We did well.”
Huerta-Leipner showed a steady hand in relief to retire Beckman’s last six batters, two on strikeouts, to notch her seventh save of the season.
“She has so much spin – I don’t,” Rios said. “I’m more speed, and then my changeup. They really haven’t seen her spin, and she’s the opposite, so I think it was really good for her to come in.”
Pang did launch one of Huerta-Leipner’s first pitches into the left-field gap, but freshman centerfielder Claire Early caught it in stride.
“Claire Early is so fast, she runs everything down,” Swann said. “That could’ve been something, but she ran it down.”
San Marcos, which made the long drive to Hemet for its second-round game, must hit the playoff road for the third time in two weeks with a 185-mile drive for Tuesday’s game against a Beaumont team that has averaged 11.5 runs in its four playoff wins.
Swann preferred to look upon the bright side, noting that the trek would be “about 20 minutes shorter” than Hemet.
His girls, after all, has already gone farther than any other softball team in school history.