Anyone who started following St. Helena High’s softball program in the early 2000s but stopped after the 2019 Saints posted another single-digit season wouldn’t believe what’s happened since.
They were showing progress even during a 2020 season canceled after five games because of the pandemic, going 2-1-1 against mostly bigger schools in Brandon Farrell’s first year as head coach.
Last year, despite missing the playoffs due to COVID-19, they managed to play 23 games and win 17, and win North Central League I with a 13-1 record.
The only way to go up from there was to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Saint Helena did it with a second-place finish, an 11-2 league record and 15 regular season wins.
Thanks to a No. 2 seed in the North Coast Section’s Division 5 playoff, they earned a first-round bye before beating the No. 7 seed South Fork 2-0 in quarter-final Saturday night.
People also read…
Now the Saints (17-7) find themselves in Friday’s 5 p.m. Division Championship game at No. 1 seed Hoopa Valley (21-5) in Humboldt County after picking up a 2 win -1 over the third-place NCL I team, No. 3 seed Clear Lake, on Tuesday night.
“It’s exciting,” said Alexandra Hill, who along with Andrea Tobon are the only seniors in this young squad. “I remember four years ago when I came into this field. It’s crazy to think that it’s the same set because this first year we struggled a lot. It’s just amazing to see how far these girls have come and how hard we’ve worked and to see it put to good use for something so big.
As the whole town probably knows by now, left-handed junior Linnea Cupp slammed a sacrificial long fly to right field to drive speedy rookie Tahlia Smith from third base with the winning run with one out in the seventh inning on Tuesday night.
Clear Lake had beaten the Saints on their own turf six games before, 3-2, limiting Saint Helena to one point in the seventh. This time, junior pitcher Ari Farrell and his defense held the Cardinals to one run in the fourth, as doubles from Hailee Bussard and Sierra Bruch tied the score 1-1.
The next time Bruch arrived, with runners in the first and third rows at the top of the seventh, was “unnerving” for Hill when the slugger hit the ball into right field.
“I saw it and sent a little prayer,” Hill recalled. “I just thought, ‘Basic fundamentals, following the ball all the way, using both hands and hanging on for life.’ We’ve definitely started making these games and that makes all the difference.
Coach Farrell added: “When they came in first and third, we just talked about having her hit something out of the strike zone because she was the one who hit it against the wall, and Ari threw a great pitch. We knew she was an aggressive swinger, and Alexandra came in and made a good play on it and that gave us the final spark to finish it.
In the bottom half, Cupp, whose sister Sofia Cupp had scored St. Helena’s first point, was needed to help score another. She gave him such a trick, Smith was able to score the standing winner.
“I couldn’t be happier for someone like Linnea Cupp – to come to the end like this and give us a fly ball,” coach Farrell said. “She’s just the perfect person to come in and do a simple job that in the logbook means nothing except it means everything to our season. Very happy with her. We’ve had all kinds of games, everywhere. Skyler Fruetal has did a magnificent job at second base. It was all gobbled up there. Kept us in the game.
Gema Jimenez (1 for 2, walk), Blythe Brakesman (1 for 2, walk, stolen base), Skylar Fruetal (1 for 4) and Linnea Cupp (1 for 4, RBI) had all four hits for Saint Helena .
Clear Lake had six hits but fewer base runners due to its pitcher who walked six and hit two batters.
Meanwhile, Ari Farrell allowed just one run on seven strikeouts and one walk.
“Ari gave it his all,” coach Farrell said. “She didn’t have a good grip on the ball. Her spin throws were all over the place, but she managed to get out with her fastball.
“I’m so proud of the girls. We talked after Saturday. In practice yesterday we came up with a game plan and the kids executed it and we made the plays when we had to.
The Saints will travel to the Hoopa Reservation a day early.
“Hoopa is near Weaverville, a 6 1/2, 7 hour drive, so we’ll be staying overnight,” Hill said. “I hope we bring the same energy.”
South Fork (10-13) had to make that kind of trip for Saturday night’s quarterfinal in St. Helena, coming from Miranda in Humboldt County, and couldn’t get on the board against Farrell. She recorded 15 strikeouts and allowed just two hits for the Cubs. The junior had been nearly as good in a 4-3 loss in their NCL I Finals at Fort Bragg eight days before, costing them a share of the league title. She had thrown a three-batter with 12 strikeouts, but none of the runs were earned as the defense made three errors.
The Saints were much sharper on Saturday. Even when they aren’t, Farrell will take her teammates on anyone.
“They really pump me up,” she said. “They make me feel really good. The team atmosphere is really good with this group.
She particularly enjoyed catcher Sofia Cupp who threw out a runner trying to steal second base in the seventh inning, crushing a potential Cardinals rally.
“Sofia did some amazing things. Her shot at second base really, really helped us in a big last part of the game,” she said. “I’m really proud of her.”
Coach Farrell said the Saints just needed to score a little earlier than they did on Saturday night, when they scored in the third and sixth innings.
Linnea Cupp went 2 for 3 and scored, Brakesman was 1 for 3 and Farrell went 1 for 3 for all four Saints hits. Sofia Cupp walked and also scored. Alexis Lund, Reese Dahline, Smith and Hill also walked.
“It was a good game. We’re happy to move on. In the playoffs, you get all the wins you can. You don’t give them back. Unfortunately, we made it a lot harder than we expected. I expected,” Brandon Farrell said. “I felt we were ready offensively. We were just a little too anxious on the plate. A few runs in the first set would have helped calm the nerves. We didn’t have them. pushed through and I think that increased everyone’s anxiety a bit.
Summer Contreras went in all six innings for South Fork, allowing an earned run on all 4 hits and 5 walks while striking out 8. Junior and freshman Shawnessy Conway-O’Neill had both hits to marble.
“Ari threw exceptionally well,” coach Farrell said. “None of the shots she gave up were disastrous either. She threw really well. Sofia Cupp kicking out the girl in second was a big takedown in the seventh inning. Overall I think those two- there kind of dominated the game and did a really good job.
Ari Farrell was asked what it’s been like to have his father as head coach since 2020, having been in charge of Saint Helena’s football program for the previous 12 years.
“I really like it because, I don’t know, we work together all the time at home, so it’s rewarding to have him with me when I have accomplishments,” she said. “Sometimes it gets a little sticky, but I love him to death and I’m really happy to be able to spend this time with him.”
Dave Mosher contributed to this report.