Laura Miklos was an Orange Lutheran High freshman in 1998, playing in a Southern Section softball championship game. Her team lost, 1-0, to Calvary Chapel, the heavy favorite.
Neither Miklos nor her teammates seemed to mind.
"Everyone from school was asking, 'Why are you so excited, you just lost?' " Miklos recalled this week. "We didn't care. We went and had a party. We were underdogs. We didn't have any seniors. We were all coming back the next year . . . [and] expected to be back in the finals."
Expectations and reality didn't mesh. For Miklos, Nicole Sandberg, Danielle Brown and Alicia Pharris, their wait turned out to be three years, not one. Today, at 10 a.m. at Barber Park in Irvine, the four seniors--all of whom started in that championship game as freshmen--finally get a second chance for their elusive title.
The Lancers (22-8) play Lancaster Paraclete (22-4) in a Division V title game that Sandberg hopes will bring "completion" to her high school career.
"It would put everything to rest," she said. "It would be one of those things where everything would be fulfilled. I would love to end it on that."
The first three years, the Lancers have gone backward in the playoffs. They lost in the final as freshmen, in the semifinals as sophomores and in the quarterfinals as juniors.
"It was like a curse," said Miklos, a pitcher with a 12-5 record, a 0.42 earned-run average and a team-high .454 batting average. "We've been saying we need to reverse the curse."
They did that by beating Ventura St. Bonaventure in the second round, 3-0, powered by Brown's two-run homer.
"We have a strong group of seniors, which I haven't had in the past," said Steve Miklos, Laura's dad and the Lancers' coach. His oldest daughter, Jenny, was a junior second baseman on the 1998 team, and his youngest daughter, Kimmy, is a junior catcher this year.
"The team is more mature [than the other three teams]. Defensively, we played a lot better. We've gotten more aggressive on the bases, and put more pressure on defenses."
Laura Miklos leads off, first baseman Sandberg (.226) bats third, left fielder Brown (.296) bats fourth and designated hitter Pharris (.278) bats fifth.
"Their batting averages aren't great, but they've contributed when it counts," Steve Miklos said. "They've stepped up at different times."
There was Brown's homer in the second round. Sandberg had a two-out, eighth-inning single to beat Ontario Christian in the quarterfinals, 1-0. Pharris started the winning rally in the semifinals with a double in another 1-0 victory.
"It's been a cool ride," Sandberg said. "After the second CIF game, I was pretty sure we were going to go all the way. I'm pretty convinced we're going to win it."
There won't be another chance.
Second-seeded Paraclete is making its seventh championship appearance but is seeking its first title. Twelve of the Spirits' last 13 games have been shutouts, and the other was a 1-0, 18-inning loss to Sun Valley Village Christian, the top-seeded team in the division. Sara Gonzales (22-2, 0.12) has 20 shutouts.
Esperanza (24-5-1) and Rancho Cucamonga (22-7) will make their first appearances in a section final at 7 p.m. at Barber Park. The Aztecs shared first place in the Sunset League, their first title since 1979, and this is their first playoff appearance since 1988. The Aztecs have eight consecutive shutouts since losing to Fountain Valley, and pitcher Kristen Dedmon (19-4) has allowed only two earned runs. The offense has been booming in the playoffs, outscoring four opponents, 14-0. Rancho Cucamonga pitcher Valerie Sevilla is 13-2, has not allowed an earned run and also leads Cougar hitters with a .446 average and 19 RBIs. The Cougars defeated Fountain Valley in the second round, 2-1, in 10 innings.
Top-seeded La Serna (25-3) defeated No. 4 Kennedy, 1-0, in 11 innings to reach the final for the fourth time. The Lancers will meet El Modena (21-9) at 1 p.m. at Barber Park. La Serna won its last title-game appearance in 1996. The Lancers' last two victories have been in extra innings. Pitcher Denise Linke is 19-2 with a 0.54 ERA, and Meagan Ruthrauff (.361) has 23 RBIs, twice as many as any teammate. El Modena will be aggressive on the basepaths if given the opportunity, led by Norrelle Dickson (.414, 22 stolen bases). El Modena, which defeated defending champion and third-seeded Hacienda Heights Wilson in the second round, had never reached the semifinals until this season, and has done so behind Tara Henry (.405), Jessica Hejna (.347) and sophomore pitcher Lindsay Klein (19-10, 0.63).