A quick look at how both first innings played out reveals why the La Cañada High softball team's past two CIF Southern Section Division V championship games were so different.
In 2011, the Spartans loaded the bases with one out but couldn't push a run across after Beaumont pitcher Alyssa Fuimaono struck out two straight pitchers.
Catherine Horner put La Cañada in position for an early lead again this year in a rematch with the Cougars when she led the game off with a single. The senior catcher moved to second on a Katy Lee sacrifice bunt, to third when Annie Monroe grounded out to the right side and scored on a Kelsey Drange single.
"For us to get us on the board and get going early in that game was absolutely huge," said La Cañada Coach KC Mathews of the Spartans 7-3 win over Beamount June 3 after they won, 1-0, in 2011. "The biggest difference this year from last year was we got that run across in the first inning. Last year I think we gave Beaumont some momentum when we didn't score in the first. This year it was team execution and it was as textbook as it can get. You had four girls in a row doing their job, and getting on the board early was tremendous for us."
While it was a complete team performance that earned La Cañada its second straight championship, Horner was named the Division V Player of the Year for not only sparking the Spartans offense in the rematch, but keeping the flame burning.
"I wasn't expecting [to be named player of the year] at all, actually," said Horner, who went two for three and scored all three times she reached base in this year's championship game, including when she led off the fifth with a double and in the sixth when she was hit by a pitch. "I was really surprised to hear it, but it was amazing.
"I really couldn't have [asked for a better senior year], winning CIF is just the cherry on top of everything. Our team had been working since September and the years past to get to where we did."
La Cañada pitcher Lauren Cox earned Division V first-team honors after she gave up just four runs, 12 hits, struck out 67 and recorded three shutout victories through 35 innings in the playoffs.
"Lauren Cox in the circle was phenomenal and there's no taking anything away from her, but I think she would even tell you she wouldn't be as successful as she is without Catherine Horner," said Mathews, who earned the division's coach of the year honors for the second season in a row.
Mathews said he believed there were a few Spartans left off the All-CIF list who deserved recognition, but, according to Mathews, only two players were allowed from each team to be selected and there were no second or third teams selected.
In the playoffs, Horner batted .280 (five for 18) with six runs scored, two runs batted in, two doubles and two stolen bases out of the leadoff spot to cap a season where she led the Spartans in batting average (.418), runs (30), RBI (29), doubles (15), slugging percentage (.735) and tied Alyssa Stolmack for the team lead in triples (two) and home runs (four).
Horner also handled Cox, who struck out 321 batters this season, behind the plate and posted a perfect fielding percentage this season and as a junior.
"Lauren was absolutely amazing, I could not have asked for any more from her," said Horner of Cox, who went 23-3 with a .62 earned-run average and notched 18 shutouts in 191.1 innings pitched. "She worked her butt off the entire year and her performances show how hard she worked."
When it came to the coach of the year, Mathews was quick to push all the praise.
"It feels like I have a great group of coaches to get these girls ready and a group of girls who came out and played their butts off and got the job done," Mathews said. "That's a team award, not an individual thing."