The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

The bus ride back from Bakersfield was a long one for the Lady Bulldogs.

Entering into the California Community College Athletic Association softball state championship tournament, College of San Mateo was riding high with an unbeaten 40-0 record.

The goal was to run the table in the state tourney to maintain the undefeated mark was the goal. It was a realistic goal in the Bulldogs’ minds, according to third baseman Harlee Donovan.

“Once you get that far, of course that’s a goal we set,” Donovan said. “We thought we were perfectly capable of going 44-0”

But then the Bulldogs ran into Southern California powerhouse Palomar, the team that ultimately claimed destiny with its fifth all-time state title.

The Bulldogs took Palomar to the limit in the double-elimination tournament. After falling to the losers’ bracket with a 5-1 loss to Palomar Saturday, CSM eliminated Cypress with a 4-2 win Saturday night. Then the Bulldogs — needing to defeat Palomar twice — won Sunday’s championship opener 2-1 before falling in the nightcap 5-1.

Immediately following the postgame awards ceremony, CSM boarded the team bus directly from the field for a nonstop ride back to the Bay Area that touched down in San Mateo at 10:30 p.m.

“It was rough,” Donovan said. “We didn’t sleep, that’s for sure. I think a lot of us had a lot to think about. And it was definitely a heartbreaking moment. It’s really hard to see something slip that you’ve been looking forward to all year.”

CSM had reason to be optimistic. As a team, the Bulldogs won the state triple crown, leading all California junior colleges with a .419 team batting average, 66 home runs and 409 RBIs.

But Palomar freshman pitcher Summer Evans proved up to the challenge, holding the Bulldogs to four runs over two games. The right-hander didn’t bring the overpowering dominance CSM starting pitcher Lauren Berriatua is capable of. While Berriatua ranked fifth in the state with 191 strikeouts this season, Evans never recorded double-digit strikeouts in a single game.

Evans was dominant nonetheless.

“I think she’s a good pitcher,” Donovan said. “She hit her spots and she got the job done for her team. She did an awesome job. I think we struggled. I’m not sure [why], but we didn’t get it done when we needed to.”

That’s high praise coming from Donovan, who won two legs of the state triple crown this season. The Half Moon Bay alum paced all California junior college hitters with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs. The freshman also ranked sixth in the state with a .540 batting average.

Through the state tournament, Donovan remained productive at the plate, hitting safely in each of the five games to go 6 for 13, including hitting her 20th home run of the year in Friday’s 4-3 win over Cypress in the tourney opener.

In Saturday’s initial loss to Palomar 5-1, Evans effectively pitched around Donovan, walking CSM’s cleanup hitter twice. The strategy paid off as Evans allowed just six hits en route to handing CSM its first loss of the season.

Donovan said the loss did not detour the Bulldogs from their sense of destiny.

“I think we were hungry,” Donovan said. “We were not going to let one loss ruin our season. We were not going to come out on that field flat and we were going to get into that championship game just like we deserved. We weren’t going to play any less than [we’re capable] just because we let ourselves have a bad game.”

Come Sunday’s championship showdown with Palomar, CSM grinded out a gritty win in the opener. The Bulldogs trailed 1-0 most of the game after the Comets scored a first-inning run against Berriatua.

The only hit Palomar recorded in the game was in that first inning though. And the Bulldogs’ bats finally got to Evans in the bottom of the sixth when Lelani Akai smoked a two-run double to give CSM a decisive 2-1 lead to force a winner-take-all finale.

Facing their fifth game in three days, however, Donovan said fatigue was starting to play a factor for the Bulldogs.

“We knew it was going to be hard,” Donovan said. “We knew we were all tired. Basically before the game, we just thought about it in the sense that we have seven more innings to do something that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”

The finale was deadlocked at 1-1 going into the fifth inning, and Berriatua was in control in the circle. The sophomore right-hander set down 11 Palomar batters in a row heading into the fifth. But everything changed after Stephanie Koishor led off the fifth with a single for the Comets.

The Bulldogs’ defense didn’t go down without a fight. Palomar’s Kristina Carbajal followed with a bunt to try to move Koishor into scoring position, but Donovan took a verbal cue from the catcher Akai and gunned down the lead runner with a tremendous play.

On the ensuing play, however, Palomar attempted another bunt. Leah Gordon pushed the sacrifice attempt to Donovan, but the third baseman had to take a chance by throwing to an unoccupied first-base bag in hopes second baseman Christy Peterson would get there in time to get the out. Instead, the throw sailed down the right-field line to put Palomar runners at second and third with one out.

“I had every intention of throwing the ball,” Donovan said. “I think I rushed myself a little bit and the throw got away.”

Both Palomar base runners scored in the inning. The Comets added single runs in the sixth and seventh. In the bottom of the seventh, the Bulldogs were retired in order, ending their dream season one victory shy of destiny.

“After some thought … it was still in our minds,” Donovan said. “It’s going to take a long time. But I think the freshmen that are returning are looking to redeem ourselves next year.”

CSM finished the year with a 43-2 overall record, including its first two wins ever in the state championship tournament.