When El Camino Real High lost nine softball players to graduation last year, Neils Ludlow told himself that 1991 would have to be a rebuilding season.
But the Conquistadores took another giant step toward proving their coach wrong Wednesday as they defeated Sylmar, 4-0, in a City Section 4-A Division semifinal game at South Gate Park.
El Camino Real (16-6), the three-time defending 4-A champion, will play Granada Hills next Thursday at Cal State Northridge. Sylmar finished with a record of 16-1, a mark that does not include losses in tournament games.
Ludlow, who has guided the Conquistadores to the 4-A title game in each of his seven seasons, never thought his young team would be defending its title in the final.
"I honestly was not expecting it," Ludlow said. "There's always that little hope down in your stomach, but I never really expected it. To come this far . . . we're really proud and pleased."
With just one senior on the team, Ludlow is using three freshmen in the starting lineup.
But, after right-hander Jennifer Gould (11-3) dismissed Sylmar on a two-hitter, who could have guessed that she is one of those ninth-graders? Gould, despite some butterflies, turned in a poised performance, striking out six batters and walking two.
"I was nervous," Gould said. "Even after we won, I was nervous."
Junior shortstop Erin McGuire, one of just four returning players, looked anything but nervous against the Spartans. Her two-run home run in the third inning initiated the scoring. Then McGuire, who was two for four, turned in the defensive play of the game an inning later.
Sylmar's Krystina Moore led off with a walk, then Traci Hanna ripped a line shot toward McGuire. McGuire snagged the drive and threw to first to double up Moore who was running on the play, ending the threat and finishing Sylmar.
"Erin has been a steady little ballplayer all year long," Ludlow said. "And she's getting better all the time."
El Camino Real made it 3-0 in the fourth when Emily Gourlay scored from second on a throwing error, and the Conquistadores added an insurance run in the seventh.
Sylmar right-hander Ruby Gonzalez (11-1) allowed five hits and struck out nine. She also had both Sylmar hits.
In another 4-A playoff game:
Granada Hills 2, Banning 1--Melissa Hansen tripled and scored on an error in the sixth inning, breaking a 1-1 tie at South Gate Park and sending Granada Hills (13-2) to the 4-A title game against El Camino Real.
Hansen, who was two for three, tripled to lead off the sixth and scored when the Banning third baseman threw wildly to first base after fielding Brandy Brennan's grounder. Brennan, who improved to 13-2, struck out 12 and did not walk a batter.
Granada Hills tied the score, 1-1, on an error in the fifth.