FRESNO — With two outs, two on and an 0-2 count with just a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh inning Templeton’s Ashley Daugherty toed the rubber and prepared to throw her final pitch as an Eagle. The CIF Central Section Div. III Softball Championship ended the only way it could, with a Daugherty strikeout, the 1,076th of her career, and the celebration began immediately as tears hit the ground even before the girls’ mitts they threw in the air before dogpiling on each other halfway between the mound and home plate.
“I saw the girl go down, [the batter who swung at the pitch],” Daugherty said. “I saw her go down at home plate and then I looked at Maddie George behind the plate and just connected right in the middle between the mound and home plate and that is kind of where the dogpile ended up being.”
The Templeton faithful made the two-hour trip to Fresno State for the title game against Dinuba and brought their energy as every big play was met with thunderous applause and cheers that could be heard in the baseball stadium across the street where the baseball finals were being played. It was the tightest and most emotionally charged game the Eagles played in the postseason as the top-seeded Emperors had multiple chances to take the lead in the last few innings but every time the second-seeded Eagles needed a big strikeout, Daugherty delivered.
Templeton opened the top of the second inning when they loaded the bases with only 1 out. Following a George groundout, the next three Eagles all reached base via walks with the last one coming on a pitch that hit freshman Alex Dahlen. The Eagles now had the bases loaded with only one out and the perfect scenario set as the top of the lineup was due up with Templeton’s hottest bat, freshman Izzy Cowne, digging into the box.
The shortstop would not deliver on this at-bat as she grounded out to the opposing shortstop who came home with the throw to prevent a run from scoring but produces the most important RBI of the season later in the game. Following Cowne, Daugherty stepped in to help her cause and drew a seven-pitch walk after fouling off a few good pitches bringing in the first run of the game.
Templeton made a minor change to its lineup as they entered the playoffs that many might not have noticed when the switched Daugherty and sophomore first baseman Isabella Backer in the batting order. While both girls are tops on the team in power, it is Backer who leads the team in hits and RBI. The subtle move might not seem like much to some but it forced opposing teams to pitch to both girls more frequently and thus resulted in more offense.
“I think it actually really worked out well,” Backer said of the switch. “Because we had Izzy as our leadoff and we knew we could always rely on her to get on base. Then we would have Ashley come up and she would usually move Izzy into scoring position and then when I came up it was nice because I was able to take my time and see some pitches before and able to prepare myself mentally for what I need to do or what I need to contribute.”
After the Eagles recorded their first run on the game via a bases-loaded walk, it was Backer’s turn to extend the Templeton lead. The sophomore first baseman didn’t record a hit but her presence alone, along with the bases being loaded, forced the Dinuba pitcher into a wild pitch that brought home the Eagles’ second run and gave Daugherty just the lead she needed.
Daugherty struck out the side in the second inning and struck out two of three in the third inning and it began to feel like she was going to take over the game as she has so many over her career and that the pressure of the moment would not impact the Eagles’ ace.
Junior second baseman Megan Ingle singled on a hard hit ground ball in the top of the fourth inning, giving the Eagles their first base runner since the top of the second, and moved into scoring position by stealing second base. Following a flyout by Dahlen, Cowne once again was up to bat in a high-pressure situation and this time she delivered as she has throughout the playoffs. Cowne led the team in RBI, batting average and runs scored throughout the playoffs.
“Just get contact,” Cowne says of what she was thinking during the at-bat. “Make contact and try and get on base. I wasn’t really thinking about where I want to hit it or anything, I just wanted to make something happen and get the crowd up.”
A loud ting of the bat indicated that Cowne made contact and the roar of the crowd told everyone that it landed in play. Cowne’s line drive to left field scored Ingle and suddenly Templeton had a commanding 3-0 lead with Daugherty dealing.
There is always something that breaks the rhythm of pitchers and for Daugherty, it was a dropped strike three in the bottom of the fourth inning. Daugherty led the inning off with a ground out to Cowne but the second batter of the inning reached first despite striking out. Daugherty then walked the next batter on five pitches to put two runners on. Suddenly the Eagles’ superhuman pitcher looked hittable as a wild pitch sailed to the backstop moving both runners into scoring position.
The next batter lined one into left field bringing home two runs and all of a sudden the air was sucked out of the stadium as it became much harder to breathe in Fresno for those supporting the Eagles. Daugherty closed out the inning with back-to-back strikeouts and both teams moved into the final three innings only one run apart, 3-2.
The Emperors put one runner on in the fifth and two runners on in the sixth and seventh but Daugherty and the defense never yielded.
“When it was the fifth and the sixth inning when they had runners in scoring position, I wasn’t — I mean obviously I don’t want the runs to score — but I wasn’t super worried,” Daugherty said. “Because I was thinking that we have at-bats to go and we can get the runs back. But when it was the bottom of the seventh with two outs and runners on second and third it was like, ‘OK this is it. I have to push through for my team right now.’ It was just kind of an intense feeling looking at everyone on the field and knowing this is the last inning, especially for me, the last inning I will ever play as an Eagle and it was like how do I want to go out.”
Daugherty opened the last inning with a strikeout but then walked the next two batters.
“I knew Ashley could do it,” Ingle said. “She is an amazing pitcher. I had the confidence in her and the whole team knew that she could do it. We all believed in her and it was just like an amazing experience.”
The right-handed fireballer struck out the next batter but Dinuba pulled off a double steal putting two runners in scoring position. Daugherty had to be perfect and that is exactly what she did striking out the final two batters.
The team that started off with zero expectations, playing eight freshmen and entered the season as a relative afterthought in the Mountain League are now CIF Division 3 champions.
“I believe we knew it was going to be tough in the beginning,” Cowne said. “But I remember coach Keith saying in one of our meetings that at first our goal was just to get better but then after we won that one CIF game, our goal was to win.”
According to the girls on the team, the Eagles turned the corner April 30 on the road when they beat the then-first-place Paso Robles Bearcats in 10 innings on senior night. Since that game, they have gone undefeated outscoring their opponents 34-8 en route to the title. This is the first softball CIF title the Eagles have won since 2006 when they won fourth straight CIF Central Section titles. With eight freshmen on this team, it seems the Eagles might be poised to make another run but will have to do so without their ace and emotional leader in Daugherty who ended her career with astronomical numbers.
During her four years at Templeton, Daugherty threw five perfect games and 10 no-hitters all while keeping a sub-one earned run average of .67. Through the last four years, the Eagles were 64-15 when Daugherty stepped into the circle with most of the batters ending their at-bats swinging and only touching air as she also recorded 1,076 strikeouts. Offensively she carried a .460 batting average recording 122 hits, 86 RBI and 14 home runs.
“I think that numbers are one thing, and yeah I value those, but I feel like for me I have been the proudest of myself in how much I have grown over the four years as just a leader and a captain,” Daugherty said of her legacy. “And especially this last year being able to take eight freshmen under my wings and just kind of lead by example and push them and teach them how to believe in themselves. I think that is probably my proudest moment as an Eagle softball player.”