A ninth place landing spot in San Diego wasn’t quite what the Sparks were hoping for, but with that finish, the Santa Clara PAL 12U squad ended up as the highest ranked team from Northern California. All eight of the teams finishing ahead of them were from Southern California.
While the Sparks were unable to win their second-straight State Games this summer, the fact they were even within striking distance is incredibly impressive. When you consider that the Sparks only had two returners from last season’s championship team and had a target on their backs as the defending champions? Talk about a job well done.
“We got everyone’s number one pitcher,” noted Sparks Manager Todd Kleinheinz. “We would see a team that we were gonna face, play against someone else and they would have a different pitcher and we would be like, ‘I wish we had seen that pitcher’ or ‘why didn’t the balls fall for us like they did for them.’ Regardless though it was such a high level of competition.”
Santa Clara lost both of their two pool play games on Friday and lost one of their two returners to injury on Friday. Maryam Radwan was unable to play Saturday after tweaking her neck. In her place at first base for the Sparks lone victory on Saturday was 10-year-old Itzel Hernandez. Heading into just fifth grade this fall, playing against girls going into as high as eighth grade, Hernandez moved from center field to cover Radwan at first base and delivered a clutch performance against girls more than two full years older.
“We were already down one player who couldn’t make the tournament due to a family obligation, and then Maryam goes down, so we had Itzel step into a position she wasn’t familiar with,” acknowledged Kleinheinz. “She stepped in and didn’t make any errors, had quality at bats, hit sixth in the order and got two hits in our victory on Saturday.”
“Our youngest girl, Itzel stepped up and played really well at first base,” echoed second baseman Olivia Vasquez. “She didn’t let any balls by her, was calling out the plays and everything.”
Vasquez and Radwan were the two returners from last year’s squad and their teammates leaned heavily on their experience.
“It was a little nerve wracking at first,” admitted pitcher Ellie Kleinheinz. “Last year, I was on 10U and moved up to 12s this year. Coming in ninth place is pretty good. Top 10 in California, I’m pretty happy with that.”
“I knew that we had some really had high standards since last year’s 12U team came first in state,” acknowledged Olivia “Red” Diaz. “So that was really nerve wracking.”
“Maryam and Olivia [Vasquez] were easily the leaders of the team,” acknowledged Coach Kleinheinz. “Maryam is a quiet by nature so she’s very much a ‘I’ll show you how to do it’ type of leader, calming influence out there. Olivia is much more of the vocal and boisterous type, she is the one who would give the pregame pep talks, talking about how important it was to maintain a positive attitude all game, leave it all on the line and what it meant to represent Santa Clara.”