CHICO, Calif. – Taylor Sepulveda laid down a suicide squeeze bunt to score Katrin Gabriel in the bottom of the seventh inning as top-seeded UC-San Diego defeated No. 4 Chico State in walk-off fashion 2-1 on Monday afternoon to capture the West Region 1 title and punch its ticket to next weekend’s West Super Regional against Cal State San Bernardino at Triton Softball Field.

UCSD
Gaito

The winner of the best-of-three Super Regional series qualifies for the Division II Softball Championship in Salem, Va., May 26-30. The Tritons have never advanced as far as the NCAA Super Regional at either the NCAA Division II or III level in school history.

After CSUC (31-19) rallied in the top of the seventh to tie the score at 1-1 on an RBI single by Diana Payan, UCSD head coach Patti Gerckens called on Gabriel to pinch-hit for Esther Strom to lead off the bottom half of the inning. Gabriel fouled six consecutive pitches with a full-count off Sam Baker (22-11) before looping a single to the opposite field over the shortstop’s outstretched glove.

“I was really excited that [Coach Gerckens] called me in to come hit, I was ready for it,” Gabriel said. “I took extra cuts even before I knew I was going to get in.”

Gabriel was granted second base on an illegal pitch by Baker and eventually moved to third after a pair of walks to Mya Romero and Kris Lesovsky.

Sepulveda stepped up to the dish with the bases loaded and one-down, having already provided four sacrifice bunts in the tournament. She attempted to bunt on Baker’s first delivery, but the ball trickled just foul, wide of the third base line. With the Wildcats calling for the squeeze on the next pitch, Sepulveda took the offering high for a ball, using her normal slapping motion to make it appear as if she would swing away.

The decoy worked, as Sepulveda dropped a textbook bunt to the pitcher’s shoelaces on the next delivery. Gabriel, a senior speedster who sits in fifth place on UCSD’s all-time steals list, broke hard from third, pressuring Baker to hurry her throw wide of her catcher. The ball careened off the backstop and Gabriel slid in for the gamewinner. 

“Taylor’s one of our best bunters. Katrin’s our fastest runner,” Gerckens said. “So it’s a perfect situation. The only thing is, it is bases loaded so it has got to be perfect. I was willing to take that risk. That’s what you have to do and it paid off this time.”

Camille Gaito (29-4) earned her third consecutive complete game victory, going a perfect 3-0 at the West Region 1 tournament while giving up just three earned runs, striking out 23 and logging a miniscule 0.84 earned run average. Gaito fanned eight Wildcat batters in the championship game, sitting down her counterpart, Baker, three times in the contest. UCSD outscored its opponents 7-3 at the Subregional, relying heavily on small-ball and the right arm of Gaito.

The Tritons opened the scoring in the first inning, loading the bases with no out for the second time in three games. Jennifer De Fazio registered an RBI single on a full-swing bunt that went about four feet, but gave Lesovsky enough time to scurry home from third to make it 1-0. De Fazio led all Triton batters with four RBIs in three games, including a two-run single on Saturday against CSUC that sent the Tritons to the championship game.

Lesovsky hit .500 (4 for 8) in Chico, scoring three times while posting a .667 on-base percentage and registering a pair of doubles to become UCSD’s all-time leader for two-baggers (50). Sepulveda hit .429 (3 for 7) with five sacrifice bunts and Sarah Woofter scored twice during the three contests.

In Friday’s first round, Rhiannon Ousley bunted-home Kirsten Willmon in the sixth inning for the game-winning run in a 2-1 game against No. 8 Central Washington. De Fazio followed suit the next day against Chico State in the second round, delivering a two-out, two-RBI single in the top of the seventh to make the difference in a 3-1 ballgame.

After Sepulveda and Gabriel’s play on Monday, UCSD remains one of the final 16 teams in the nation, and must win two more games to earn the school’s first appearance at the Division II Championship.

Standing in the Tritons’ way are the Coyotes, who earned a bid to the Super Regional by winning West Region 2 in Kaneohe, Hawaii. CSUSB, seeded No. 7 in the West, outlasted defending national champion No. 2 Hawaii Pacific and CCAA Tournament champion No. 3 Sonoma State. The Coyotes finished fifth in the CCAA regular-season standings and did not appear at May 1-3’s CCAA Tournament. UCSD swept CSUSB in the four games between the teams in 2011 and holds a 43-40 all-time advantage against the Coyotes.