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

The College of San Mateo softball team may be the defending state champion, but with only three returning starters, a majority of the 2023 squad are getting their first taste of the postseason this weekend.

The second-seeded Bulldogs opened Northern California best-of-three regional play Friday, hosting No. 15 Santa Rosa and it took a while for CSM to untracked. In fact, the Bulldogs found themselves trailing 1-0 after three innings.

But a spectacular defensive play from shortstop Leila Vasquez in the top of the fourth inning sparked a rally in the bottom of the frame as the Bulldogs went on to beat the Bear Cubs 7-2 in Game 1.

The two teams will be back at it at noon Saturday for Game 2. If a Game 3 is necessary, it will be played about a half hour after Game 2.

“We were on simmer the first couple of innings … and that (play) lit a fire,” said CSM head coach Nicole Quigley-Borg. “[Velasquez] didn’t win the Golden Glove at last year’s state championship tournament for no reason.”

Velasquez appeared to be looking to make up for a throw on which she failed to get to first base in time that allowed Santa Rosa to take a 1-0 lead in the top of second, with the Bear Cub’s Emma Falberg beating out the throw on a bang-bang play.

Velasquez faced a similar situation in the top of the fourth. Again, it was a play involving Falberg, who hit a grounder to Velasquez’s left. The sophomore shortstop went to her knees to backhand the ball and then skipped a throw to first, with Grace Rofii making a long stretch, to get Falberg by half a step for the second out of the inning.

After a routine grounder ended the inning, the fired up Bulldogs got back to their dugout and went to work offensively. Hailey Mesienbach and Gaby Perez drew back-to-back walks to open the inning. Tori Cortez advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt to bring up Mariah Norris, who laced a shot just inside the third-base bag and down the left-field line for a two-run double and a 2-1 CSM lead, that they would not relinquish.

The Bulldogs all but put the Bear Cubs away with a five-run fifth. Velasquez got that rally started with a single and Vanessa Lang followed with a bunt single to bring up leadoff hitter Lafu Maleapeai. The 2022 women’s state athlete of the year, Maleapeai gave CSM some breathing room with a three-run homer to center to put the Bulldogs up 5-1. Norris drove in her third run of the game with a single and the fifth run of the inning scored on an error on the play for a 7-1 CSM lead.

Santa Rosa added a solo home run in the seventh for their final run.

The offensive rally made a winner of CSM pitcher Siona Halwani, who came on in relief in the third inning for starter Lia Evans. Evans didn’t necessarily struggle during her two-plus innings of work. But the four pitchers who appeared in the game — two for each team — struggled with the home plate umpire’s tight strike zone. Meaning pitchers had to attack batters, which led to a lot of hard-hit balls.

“When you get squeezed, it’s tough. … We had an inability to adjust to the strike zone,” said Quigley-Borg. “You have to adjust. You have to know your defense will work behind you.”

Santa Rosa got to Evans in the top of the second. Maya Weigel-Murphy led off the inning for the Bear Cubs with a single, but Evans retired the next two batters. Carmen Haugen singled to bring up Falberg, who hit a slow roller to Velasquez, just beating the throw at first to drive in Weigel-Murphy with the first run of the game.

The CSM offense, on the other, got off to a slow start. Malepeai led off the bottom of the first with a single and eventually moved around to third where she was stranded. After that leadoff hit, Weigel-Murphy retired the next nine batters in a row before CSM finally got to her in the fourth.

“I think we need to do a better job hitting out of the gate,” Quigley-Borg said. “We have three starters from last year. That’s a lot of turnover.”