Jesuit continues to play well after eye-opening spring break in Southern California

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior shortstop Jenny Marnin slides safely into third base against Aloha.

Sun-drenched Southern California gave Jesuit a fairly shrill taste of big-time softball over spring break.

The pitching was faster. The hits came at the Crusader defense with enhanced velocity. The level of play was elevated and success was hard to come by as Jesuit lost five of their final six games in Anaheim. Playing two contests a day against teams that compete year-round, the Crusaders immersed themselves in the foreign softball scene, taking their lumps and learning along the way.

The three-day event was eye-opening, to say the least. And it might just be the catapult Jesuit needs to make another Class 6A state championship run.

Since returning from Southern Cal, Jesuit (6-6 overall, 2-0 in Metro) has won its last two games including Friday's 10-1 road win over Aloha (3-9, 0-3) at Aloha High School. Senior pitcher Olivia Strickland shined in the circle, striking out 10 while allowing just three hits and one earned run. Senior first baseman Reyan Tuck went 4-for-4 with a double, a triple and three runs scored. Jenny Marnin had a double and an RBI single for the Crusaders while Grace Kyle added a two-run homer in the seventh. Back in their own beds and back to their old routines, the Crusaders came away from Anaheim with battle scars but fittingly confident.

"They're hardcore down there," Marnin said of Southern California softball. "Seeing that caliber of pitching was awesome. Even though we didn't get the wins or come close in some of those games, we still had each other's backs. The trip was a lot of fun but it's nice to be back to reality and normal stuff."

Softball-rich schools with countless Division One prospects like Aliso Niguel and Santa Margarita don't exist in Oregon. Comparable programs such as Tualatin, North Medford and Westview are talented, but not to that degree. For Jesuit to test themselves against some of the nation's best will only benefit the Crusaders as they march into the heart of Metro League.

"The teams we faced were even more challenging than anybody we're going to face here," Marnin said. "That's nice to be in those situations. Even when you're down, it still gives you that lesson of fighting back and having the will to even try, even though you know the team is better than you."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Aloha junior pitcher Chole Smith fires a pitch toward the plate against Jesuit.

Tuck led off the second against Aloha by smacking an opposite-field triple to right and was driven home by an Annalisa Williamson RBI single to go up 1-0. Senior Ashley Renda added an RBI groundout and the Crusaders tacked on three more runs in the second inning to extend their lead to 5-0.

Aloha, unlike past years against the Jesuit juggernaut, didn't let the Crusaders sail to a five-inning rout runaway. Junior Michelle Winfield walked in the bottom of the fifth after waging a long back-and-forth battle with Strickland and then stole second. Then Aloha freshman Emma DeLoyola roped a single back up the middle that scored Winfield to bring Aloha within 6-1 in the bottom of the fifth. DeLoyola, Leina Belog and Crissy Collins all made nice plays scooping up grounders around for outs to retire the side in the sixth. Collins made a great sliding catch in the fouls ground dirt by the Jesuit dugout in the third.

Aloha shortstop Emily Churchill singled to load the bases with just one out in the third for DeLoyola who popped out to Strickland who crashed into Williamson as the two came together to smother the pop-up. And the Crusader catcher reciprocated Strickland's effort with a pop fly catch just a few feet in front of the dish.

The Crusaders, who won a state championship just two years ago with Strickland, Marnin, Tuck and Sammie Petitt playing vital roles as sophomores, might not have the same megawatt stars as their 2015 squad, but they're sound at the plate, in the circle and defensively. Marnin and Petitt are a dynamic double-play combination. Strickland is an all-state pitcher. Tuck is one of the better hitters in Metro and there are emerging stars such as Williamson and Maya Williams making plays and producing at the plate. The makeup of the squad is different, but the expectations remain the same.

"It's a very different team but that doesn't change how high of a level we need to be playing at," Marnin said. "I think everyone on this team has learned to play at that high level and I know by the end of the season we're going to be close or at the same spot we were two years ago, getting ready to go to that state championship. We still have a lot of things to work on, but so far I'm not disappointed at all with anything that our team has produced."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior first baseman Reyan Tuck and head coach Jim Speciale celebrate a Tuck triple in the second inning against Aloha.

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