Veteran leadership plus young additions and sage coaching do not always add up to a championship.
When the Campbell Sabers took the field in defense of their state softball championship — they had won the last two, actually — there was doubt among observers. For much of the spring, the skepticism about Campbell’s sometimes punchless lineup was valid. Cruel, perhaps, but valid.
For weeks, months even, senior slugger Jocelyn Alo was walked borderline intentionally, often being issued a pass without seeing a single strike in plate appearance after plate appearance. It was the right move. The rest of the lineup, for the most part, couldn’t generate anything. In three losses to Pearl City, senior ace Dani Cervantes persevered, but couldn’t do much else as the Sabers took a back seat to the upstart Chargers with one-run loss after one-run loss.
It a grand season of challengers whineach had the clout and discipline to win it all. The West was enormously talented again with five of the OIA’s six state berths. Pearl City rode atop the Star-Advertiser Top 10 for weeks. Then Kamehameha’s potent offense took the reins. Then it was a battle between the best in the West, with Kamehameha losing its ace pitcher to injury along the way, before Mililani’s savvy and clutch senior-heavy crew seized the OIA crown.
The Sabers remainder resilient, however, and their patience paid off on Saturday. They capped a four-day run of excellence by blanking OIA champion Mililani 2-0 behind a brilliant one-hit, 11-strikeout performance by Cervantes.
Cervantes and Alo, the rest of their senior classmates and the veteran coaching staff — clad in their bright and bouncy Houston Astros-inspired throwback coaches jerseys — did more than hold down the fort. They went beyond statistics and strategy. They had faith, the immeasurable intangible. And now, the Campbell Sabers — the third-place-in-the-OIA Campbell Sabers — are state champions for a third year in a row.
“It feels so good. This was a young team. We had a lot of doubters, people saying these girls are young and they’re not going to pull it off, but we pulled it off,” said Alo, who has signed to play for the Oklahoma Sooners next season. “Our drive is unbelievable. We all put our mind to one thing and we’ll do anything to accomplish it. We faced obstacles and we won’t let anything affect us.”
Alo got one game of real at-bats during states, homering against BIIF champion Kealakehe. It was her lone hit of the tourney, followed by the usual litany of walks that gave the suddenly hot-hitting Sabers a chance to cash in with house chips.
All of that offensive surge made life easier on the mound for Cervantes.
“I guess I just kind of talked to myself. It’s time, you have to have all the heart. You can do it. I just really believed in myself and everyone behind me. It was just great,” said Cervantes, who will play at UH-Hilo next spring. “I know Mililani is a good team that can send the ball out of the park really fast. I just had to remind myself, ‘Hit your spots. Do what you’re supposed to do and don’t let them catch any mistakes from you.’ Outside, all day, curve balls and regular fastballs. Fastballs inside and the rise ball.”
She delivered each of her pitches at an elite level, keeping Mililani’s dangerous sluggers off balance. Meanwhile, the young Sabers who follow Alo, the No. 2 batter in coach Michael Hermosura’s lineup, began to chip away, fouling off pitch after pitch, developing into A-level hitters on the biggest stage.
“I think as the games went on the girls gained more confidence, and every at-bat, they never failed to make me feel more and more proud,” Cervantes said.
All the struggles, as Hermosura noted after the title win, that come with a team that may have lost a bit of its edge after two state titles, with an influx of inexperienced varsity players, made the state crown that much sweeter. Alo and Cervantes lingered in the dugout as long as they could after the game, holding that HHSAA championship koa trophy like a precious baby. Cervantes remembered the tears that fell after the Sabers lost at home on senior day — to Pearl City — and all the other defeats.
Everything, she believes, went according to plan.
“Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing. We came up short a couple of times, but we’re here and we did it, and I’m just so proud of everyone.”