Garden Grove Pacifica defeats Norco for Division 1 softball title

A bright, big orange sign hangs above the entrance to the Garden Grove Pacifica softball locker room, displaying a message the team tore to shreds on Friday night at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine.

“We’re not that good.”

As coach Tony Arduino tells it, he was cleaning out the visiting dugout after a league game a month ago when he overheard a few opposing players, unaware of his presence, muttering that the Mariners were overrated. That they weren’t actually that good. So Arduino came up with the tongue-in-cheek slogan that would define his team’s season.

“It also humbled us,” pitcher Brynne Nally said, “and made us realize we have to take that personally.”

Suddenly, they were no longer an Orange County softball powerhouse but an underdog in the players’ minds. A galvanized group streaking its way to an unlikely berth in the Southern Section Division 1 finals Friday against 28-3 Norco, but finding it to be a tough road because of a Tamryn Shorter triple and a three-run deficit entering the fifth inning.

But an electric crowd, spilling onto the grassy hillside, never wavered in shaking their blue-and-silver pompoms. A young child chanted “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, and buzz flitted in the stands as Micheala Meza and Liz Sigala singled to start the fifth inning, growing to a fervor as junior Kaniya Bragg got plunked with the bases loaded to cut Norco’s lead to two.

And on a 2-and-1 count, the bases still full, Delaina Ma’ae knocked a two-run single up the middle, pointing and shooting an invisible arrow at a rocking Mariners crowd. Suddenly, the team that wasn’t that good had tied the score — and their bats suddenly alive, went on to hack and slash for two more innings in a rollicking 15-9 blowout. It was the highest-scoring game in Southern Section softball championship game history.

“I felt like an underdog,” Ma’ae said, “but also, I still have confidence in my team. Because that’s just what Pacifica is made of.”

The Mariners came out fast, Ma’ae pumping her fist and screaming in glee after she scored on a wild pitch to give Pacifica a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Norco got to Pacifica’s steadfast Brynne Nally in the second, hanging four runs courtesy of the Shorter triple. But Ma’ae’s fifth-inning hit brought the score even.

“When it’s all said and done,” Arduino said after the game, “I want [Ma’ae] in the batter’s box.”

Pacifica followed with three straight singles and a pair more runs to put up a crooked seven in the fifth. Any semblance of pitching — or defense, with seven combined errors — vanished in the later innings, as the Mariners extended their lead in the sixth on a three-run triple from Annika Sogsti, who finished with a team-leading four RBIs.

Norco slugger Mya Perez blasted a seventh-inning homer, but it wasn’t enough to stave off a final bear hug between catcher Catherine Benitez and Nally, who gutted through seven innings of nine-run ball to get the win.

Pacifica finished 23-8, far from spectacular for a Southern Section champion. They didn’t even win the Empire League. But there they were in center field after winning the title, players demanding Arduino join them in a celebratory TikTok, the coach ending his postgame speech with a grin and a final touch of satire:

“And you’re still not that good!”