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SAN DIMAS — After the ball fell untouched behind the pitcher's mound Tuesday and the winning run crossed home plate, an all-too-familiar emotional toll was exacted on the players on the field.

La Habra had cried these tears before.

For the second consecutive year, the Highlanders were 1-0 losers in the semifinals of the Southern Section playoffs. This time, they fell to Covina Charter Oak (28-0-1), which plays Bishop Amat Friday at Mayfair Park in Lakewood for the Division II title.

A year ago, top-seeded La Habra was shocked by Newhall Hart. This time, the Highlanders (23-6) were seeded fourth and Charter Oak was seeded No. 1 in the division and the top-ranked team in the state.

The result was just as shocking. Dani Ortega (23-6) had cruised through seven innings with a three-hit, 12-strikeout (including seven in a row) performance. She had walked two, but was even more dominating than Charter Oak's heralded Christy Tucker (28-0), who allowed two hits, struck out eight and walked two.

Charter Oak Coach Jill Matyuch called Ortega--who allowed only one run in four playoff games--the best pitcher her team has faced.

"She was so mentally tough," Matyuch said. "I know La Habra relies on her, and I can see why--she holds down the fort."

Ortega's third walk, to No. 8 batter Deidre Herrera, led off the bottom of the eighth inning, but the next two batters were out on pop fouls. One more out--a grounder, a fly, a strikeout--and Coach Sue Briquelet was convinced her team would win: "If we had gone through the order another time, we would have scored."

Ortega got the grounder to third baseman Meagan Mirth, who fielded it cleanly, but she said she hurried her throw and it skipped past first baseman Dee Dee Miranda.

With runners at second and third, Ortega tried for the strikeout against the No. 3 batter, freshman Lisa Iancin, who had walked, struck out and fouled out in her previous at-bats. Iancin fouled off two two-strike screwballs, so Ortega relented and threw a 1-ball, 2-strike curve over the outside part of the plate. Iancin swung and delivered what Matyuch called the cheapest of her 13 RBIs.

The pop-up landed between charging shortstop Aimee Weathers and second baseman Amber Duarte. Both came up inches short.

Ortega, one of six seniors with three or four years of varsity experience on the team, said the ball should have been caught.

"I could've ran and dove for it," Ortega said. "It was playable. We didn't communicate."

Briquelet agreed.

"It happened before (in the seventh inning) and we had talked about it," she said. "We had the batter we wanted up. You love an infield fly--we just didn't make the play. The infield was playing deep because the outfield was playing deep. I didn't want to lose the game on a dink up the middle."

This was the second time Charter Oak beat La Habra. The Chargers scored a 2-1 victory in the Brea-Olinda Tournament semifinal. Both those runs scored with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, again after La Habra failed to make two plays--on a fly ball and on a bunt--that would have ended the game.

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